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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - The Vatican is invoking sovereign immunity for a cardinal implicated in covering up sex abuse.
Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was summoned to criminal court Sept. 19 to answer for his role in advising Cdl. Philippe Barbarin on how to discipline a predator priest.
Barbarin, who heads the diocese of Lyon, France, is facing trial for failing to sanction Fr. Bernard Preynat, accused of homosexual assault of multiple Scout members from 1980–1990. The revelations about the popular and media-friendly cardinal have rocked the Church in France over the past several years, causing multiple French bishops to ask forgiveness and pledge to implement stronger measures against sex abuse. An online petition demanding that Barbarin resign has garnered more than 100,000 signatures.
"I realize today that my answer at that time was not commensurate with the stakes," Barbarin told Le Monde last year. "Today, we would not act like that, that's what was wrong."
Preynat was allowed to remain in active ministry after Barbarin learned in 2007 that the priest had abused multiple young males. Barbarin admits he failed to remove Preynat based on the priest's assurance that he had not molested anyone after 1991. The priest was allowed to remain in ministry until 2015, after further allegations of abuse surfaced.
In 2015, Barbarin had turned to Ladaria for guidance on disciplining Preynat. Ladaria at the time was secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and in charge of the department overseeing clerical sexual misconduct. He advised Barbarin at the time to take "appropriate disciplinary measures while avoiding public scandal." The victims' attorneys argue this was a clear message from Ladaria not to pursue justice. Both Barbarin and Ladaria were ordered by the Lyons court to stand trial for their role in covering up Preynat's abuse.
After the court twice delayed proceedings because of the Vatican's failure to respond to the summons, the Vatican sent a diplomatic note Sept. 17 — two days before the start of trial — to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Lyon court making clear it rejected the summons. Arguing that Ladaria's correspondence with Barbarin took place "in the exercise of sovereign functions" and that international law recognizes "criminal immunity ratione materiae to public officials for acts performed in the name of the sovereign pontiff," the Vatican deemed the summons unacceptable.
François Devaux, who initiated the proceedings against Barbarin, slammed the Vatican's move, saying it "highlights the particular problem of the Church: a system that allows us to evade justice ... ."
Ladaria was tapped to replace Cdl. Gerhard Müller as head of the CDF in 2017, whose five-year term was not renewed by Pope Francis. Müller later confirmed the reason was owing to clashes between him and the pope over his handling of clerical abusers. The pope repeatedly ignored the CDF's recommendations on punishment for accused priests, instead choosing leniency. In at least one case, Francis was forced to apologize after reversing sanctions imposed on Fr. Mauro Inzoli, convicted in criminal court of abusing multiple young males.
Barbarin's trial is scheduled to move forward without Ladaria in January 2019. Canonical proceedings against the French cardinal have been suspended during the criminal investigation.