Vatican complains after French court rules in favor of nun dismissed from religious order

Associated Press [New York NY]

April 13, 2024

By Nicole Winfield

The Holy See said Saturday it formally protested to France after a court there 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.

The Lorient tribunal on April 3 ruled in favor of the nun, Sabine de la Valette, known at the time as Mother Marie Ferréol. The court issued a scathing denunciation of the secretive process the Vatican used to kick her out of the order, the Dominicans of the Holy Spirit, after an internal investigation.

The case is highly unusual, because it represented a secular civilian court essentially determining that the Vatican’s in-house canonical procedures grossly violated the nun’s fundamental rights.

In a statement Saturday, the Vatican said it had formally protested to the French embassy 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 2020 expulsion after 34 years as a nun in the order.

The statement also cited potential diplomatic issues about the civil verdict against Ouellet, given his immunity as a cardinal and official of a foreign government. The Holy See is recognized internationally as a sovereign state.

The former nun’s attorney, Adeline le Gouvello de la Porte, said the court found that the Vatican’s canonical investigation had violated several of the woman’s fundamental rights, including the right to a defense. It said she was never told what she was accused of, or why she was being kicked out of the order.

Gouvello de la Porte said the court also expressed “surprise” that Ouellet hadn’t recused himself from the case. The court found Ouellet was friendly with another sister in the community “whose positions were notoriously opposed to those of Mme Baudin de la Valette,” the attorney said, citing the court verdict.

The Lorient court found the nun’s expulsion was without merit, and ordered Ouellet, the religious order and the two Vatican-mandated envoys who conducted the investigation to pay over 200,000 euros ($213,000) in material and moral damages, as well as fines.

The defendants are appealing, according to French Catholic daily 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. The sentence laid bare how canonical procedures often run afoul of contemporary secular concepts about the right to defense and a fair, adversarial judicial procedure.

And yet the French justice system seems increasingly willing to take on even high-ranking church officials in secular courts, much more so than in neighboring 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 8-month prison sentence. The Vatican had lifted the immunity of the ambassador, Monsignor Luigi Ventura, allowing the trial to go ahead.