A U.S. appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit by Holocaust survivors against the Vatican bank, ruling not on the allegations against the bank but rather on jurisdiction.
The plaintiffs – Jewish and other survivors from Yugoslavia, Croatia and Ukraine - claimed that the Vatican bank and others stored and laundered $50 million worth of their valuables that had been stolen by the Nazi-backed Ustasha regime that controlled Croatia. Representing over 300,000 Holocaust victims and their heirs, they sought an accounting, restitution and damages from the Vatican – in the form of the return of that portion of the Ustasha treasury that had been transferred to the Vatican, the Franciscan Order, and other banks after World War II.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, California, took no stand on the survivors' allegations. Instead, it upheld a lower court ruling that the Vatican bank, together with foreign countries in general, is immune from such a lawsuit under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
Historians have long stated that plunder from the Ustasha made its way to Rome and was then used in part to help Croatian Ustasha war criminals flee to South America. During World War II, the Ustashas exterminated hundreds of thousands – estimates range from 300,000 to 750,000 – of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, and also looted their property. The Croatian Catholic Church was closely entangled with the Ustashas, overseeing forced conversion of Orthodox Serbs to Catholicism in the early years of the war. This was in keeping with the Croatian-Ustasha plan to ethically cleanse the area of Serbs by killing a third, expelling a third, and converting the rest.
Attorney Jonathan Levy, representing the plaintiffs, said he would not appeal the judgment, and that the victims’ suit against the Roman Catholic Franciscans order on identical charges is continuing.
Levy told the Associated Press he thought he had sufficiently shown that the Vatican bank engaged in commercial activities in the United States, which can serve as an exemption to the immunities act’s protection clauses. "The reason we're disappointed is the court found that dealing in gold teeth from concentration camps was not a commercial act," he said. The court had ruled that the Vatican banks' commercial activities in the U.S. were "too tangentially related to their legal claims to be considered the basis for the suit."