Vatican lifts envoy's immunity over sex assault claims: France

Paris (AFP) –


The Vatican has lifted the diplomatic immunity of its Paris envoy who is under investigation for alleged sexual assault, the French foreign ministry said Monday.

Luigi Ventura, 74, faces four complaints of sexual abuse -- including that he molested a junior official at the Paris town hall. French prosecutors in March asked the Vatican to lift his immunity.

A spokesman said the foreign ministry "received confirmation from the Holy See that it had waived (Ventura's) immunity" in a letter that arrived late last week.

In February, French prosecutors revealed they were investigating the Italian-born archbishop over an incident at the town hall during a New Year's address by Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

During the ceremony, a city employee had their backside repeatedly groped, with the town hall filing a complaint on January 24. An investigation was opened the next day.

Two other people have since come forward and related incidents involving "similar gestures, hands on buttocks or thighs", which allegedly took place last year.

There was also a complaint filed in Ottawa by a man who made similar allegations about an incident in 2008 while Ventura was serving in Canada.

- Victim 'very surprised' -

In Paris, prosecutors said they had requested on March 7 that the Vatican lift his immunity "in the context of the inquiry involving him in the matter of sexual assault".

In response, the Holy See sent back a letter dated July 2 in which it confirmed waiving his immunity from prosecution.

The move was welcomed by Mathieu de la Souchere, one of the complainants who travelled to Rome with his lawyer last week to meet a Vatican official from an advisory panel that reports to the pope on cases of sexual abuse.

"I'm very surprised because for six months, I had been told that getting his diplomatic immunity lifted was not feasible because it involved an abuser protected by his status," said Souchere, 27.

"Since the beginning, we have not had any support from the French government which refused to put its foot down. If we, as victims, had not spent our money to go to Rome, we wouldn't be where we are today."

- Police interview in April -

In early April, the papal nuncio -- the term for a Vatican ambassador -- spoke to the police, with judicial sources saying it was "at his request". They gave no further details.

A career diplomat with the Vatican, Ventura has held the position in Paris since 2009.

He also served in Brazil, Bolivia and Britain before being appointed papal nuncio to Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Niger, Chile and then Canada.

The case emerged as the Catholic Church struggles with a major crisis following the emergence of a wave of allegations detailing decades of sexual assault and abuse by clerics, mostly involving minors.