Vatican complains after French court rules in favor of dismissed nun

ROME — The Holy See has formally protested to France after a French court ruled that a former high-ranking Vatican official was liable for what the court determined to be the wrongful dismissal of a nun from a religious order.

According to French media, the Lorient tribunal on April 3 ruled in favor of the nun, Sabine de la Valette, known at the time as Mother Marie Ferreol. She was forced to resign from her religious order, the Dominicans of the Holy Spirit, after a Vatican investigation.

In a statement Saturday, the Vatican said that it had received no notification of any such verdict, but that the ruling nevertheless represented a “grave violation” of the right to religious freedom.

The Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis had tasked Cardinal Marc Ouellet, at the time the head of the Vatican’s bishops’ office, with conducting an investigation that ended with the Holy See taking a series of canonical measures against Valette, including her expulsion after 34 years as a nun in the order.

The statement also cited potential diplomatic issues, given Ouellet’s immunity as a cardinal and official of a foreign government. The Holy See is recognized internationally as a sovereign state.

According to French Catholic daily La Croix, the Lorient court found the nun’s expulsion was without merit and ordered Ouellet, the religious order and other defendants to pay over 200,000 euros ($213,000) in material and moral damages, as well as fines. The defendants are appealing, La Croix said.

The Vatican frequently conducts such internal investigations into religious orders or dioceses, which can be sparked by complaints of financial mismanagement, sexual or other types of abuses, or governance problems. It considers the measures it takes to be exclusively internal to the life of the Catholic Church.

As a result, the Lorient court decision represented an unusual intrusion of secular justice in internal church matters, prompting the diplomatic complaint from the Holy See.

The French justice system seems increasingly willing to take on even high-ranking church officials in court, much more so than in Italy, and especially concerning allegations related to clergy sexual misconduct and cover-up.

In 2020, for example, a French appeals court threw out a lower court ruling that had convicted Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of covering up the sexual abuse of minors in his flock.

That same year, a Paris court convicted a retired Vatican ambassador to France of sexually assaulting five men in 2018 and 2019 and handed him a suspended eight-month prison sentence. The Vatican had lifted the immunity of the ambassador, Monsignor Luigi Ventura, which allowed the trial to go ahead.

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