A European court ruled on Tuesday that the Vatican cannot be sued in a local court for sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests, stating that the Vatican has sovereign immunity and that the misconduct of priests and their superiors cannot be blamed on the Holy See.

A case brought by two dozen people who claimed to be victims of abusive priests in Belgium was dismissed by the European Court of Human Rights. The 24 claimed the Holy See was liable because of the “structurally deficient” way the Catholic hierarchy covered up cases of priests who raped and molested children for decades. After Belgian courts ruled that they lacked jurisdiction due to the Holy See’s immunity as a sovereign state, the plaintiffs appealed to the Strasbourg-based court.

The European Court ruled that the Belgian judges were correct and that the victims’ right to appear in court had not been violated. It reaffirmed the Belgian court’s ruling that the Holy See has sovereign immunity and that no exception to that rule applied because bishops’ misconduct in handling abuse cases could not be attributed to the Vatican.

The European court stated, citing the Belgian decision, that the pope was not the “principal” of his bishops, “that the misconduct attributed directly to the Holy See hadn’t been committed on Belgian territory but in Rome; and that neither the pope nor the Holy See had been present on Belgian territory when the misconduct attributed to the leaders of the church in Belgium had been committed.”

The European Court ruled that it was not appropriate to substitute its own judgment because the Belgian decision was not arbitrary or unreasonable. The ruling on Tuesday, the first time the Holy See’s immunity was tested by the European court, was a Chamber decision. Both parties have three months to request that the case be heard by the Grand Chamber of the court for a final decision.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Darian Pavli questioned the Belgian court’s conclusion about the pope’s level of authority over his bishops. He contended that Belgian judges had ignored evidence that the pope does, in fact, hire and fire bishops, and that the Vatican had imposed a code of silence on the handling of abuse cases around the world as a matter of policy. As a result, Pavli contended, the European tribunal should have determined that Belgian judges did indeed deny victims access to the courts.

In U.S. courts, the Holy See has successfully argued that the pope is not the boss of his bishops, thwarting attempts by victims to hold the Holy See and the pope liable for their abuse. More such lawsuits have been filed in recent years, including by victims of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked by Pope Francis in 2019 following a Vatican investigation that revealed he sexually abused minors and adults. These lawsuits cite a Vatican-commissioned report published last year, which found that as he rose through the church hierarchy, a series of popes, Holy See officials, and bishops downplayed or dismissed reports of his sexual misconduct.

The Vatican refused to comment on the ruling, claiming that it speaks for itself. The lawyers for the victims did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The ruling, according to Anne Barrett Doyle, co-founder of the online resource BishopAccountability.org, is a “galling reminder” of the Vatican’s impunity due to its status as a sovereign state.

“Because of the church’s dual identity as a religion and a state, it can shape-shift in response to the threat it faces in the courts.” “She stated this in a statement. “No other religious institution has the same array of legal safeguards.” As a result, the church continues to elude justice, leaving untold millions of victims to suffer.”