Service of Process at the Vatican City

The Catholic Church has had several lawsuits filed against it around the world by victims of alleged sexual abuse by the clergy. Attorneys representing survivors have filed claims against the Vatican and argue that the Holy See has benefited from the support of archbishops, parishioners, and others who knew of the abuse and yet actively covered it up. Not surprisingly, suing a foreign state like the Vatican comes with its complications.

Serving the Holy See

 In a typical international lawsuit, the attorney for the plaintiff would look to the Hague Service Convention (“HSC”) and the Inter-American Convention (“IAC”) on Letters Rogatry to determine if the foreign nation is a signatory to these international treaties and what methods are prescribed for international service of process. The Vatican Church, however, is not a signatory to either agreement. As a result, international service of process in an American-based lawsuit must be effectuated through the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”)—specifically, Rule 4(j)(i)—as well as 28 U.S.C. 1608.

Under the FRCP, a plaintiff can serve a lawsuit against a foreign nation like the Holy See. The legal documents—which include the summons, notice of the lawsuit, copy of the complaint, and letters rogatory—are presented to the court for signature. Then, these documents must be translated into the official language of the receiving nation. In the case of the Holy See, Italian and (to cover all bases) Latin. Copies of these translated documents must also be provided to the court so that they can be sent out under 28 U.S.C. through the court’s Request for Judicial Assistance.

Service Trouble

Litigants suing the Vatican are first required to serve through letters rogatory. Should this method fail, the next allowable method is through diplomatic channels through the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”). This method is both lengthy and expensive.


According to lawyers representing abuse victims against the Catholic Church, effectuating service of process is a lengthy and challenging process. The Holy See tries to evade direct service by claiming that the individual served is not the proper person by switching the head of foreign affairs (who can accept service) periodically. It also requires that briefs be translated into Latin. According to CHILD USA, a not-for-profit dedicated to ending child abuse and representing victims, it takes approximately one to three years for international service to Vatican City to be effectuated. This behavior, according to counsel for plaintiff-victims, is standard for the Holy See despite the FRCP imposing a duty on defendants to not increase the expense of service and encouraging them to accept documents when served.

Let Us Help

Plaintiffs seeking to file suit against the Vatican or any other foreign nation can face many hurdles in addition to expenses and delays. The team at Ancillary Legal understands the complexities of international and domestic service of process. Let us help move your case along. Contact us today.