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GHENT, Belgium (Reuters) - Belgians molested by Catholic priests will go ahead with their legal proceedings against the Vatican for damages despite an offer by local bishops to compensate them, their lawyers said on Wednesday.
Pope Benedict enjoys diplomatic immunity but other Vatican officials and Belgian bishops will be summoned to testify in the case, lawyer Walter van Steenbrugge said.
Christine Mussche, another lawyer for about 70 victims, said the Vatican failed to intervene even when it learned about the scandals in the Belgian Church. Over 500 cases of alleged abuse have been registered in the past year.
"There were instructions from the pope that said those things had to be kept secret and silent," she said, adding the Church could be guilty of harmful neglect under Belgian law.
The Belgian bishops' conference said on Monday that it would set up a commission to compensate victims molested so long ago that their cases can no longer be prosecuted. Some reported cases go back several decades.
"As long as there are no concrete results from the arbitrage commission, the victims will continue the procedure," Mussche told a news conference.
Several victims explained why they were part of the suit which the lawyers said they would file in Ghent in September.
"All the security I had in my life was gone because the priest who abused me and whom I had trusted had shaken me to the core," said Walter Franckaert, now 58.
Fighting to hold back tears, Jeroen Vyncke, 41, said he wanted "a just compensation (for) missed professional chances and the lack of long-term social relationships."
Mussche said the text of the summons will be translated into Italian and delivered to the Vatican in the next few days.
The Belgian lawyers appeared to be taking a page from the legal strategy of attorneys representing clerical abuse victims in the United States, where several such suits have been filed.
In one case concerning a priest in Milwaukee, the summons was served in April through U.S. diplomatic channels after the Vatican refused to accept them when sent by a courier service.
Another case was filed in Chicago last month.
Vatican lawyers have argued that victims cannot sue the pope because he enjoys diplomatic immunity. They also say the Vatican cannot be drawn into cases abroad because the local diocese, and not Catholicism's world headquarters, employs the priests.
Steenbrugge disputed part of that argument. "The Holy See is the central organ of the Catholic Church and has legal status in international law," he said. "The pope himself is immune."
Hundreds of victims of abuse in the Belgian Church came forward after the former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, admitted in April 2010 to abusing his own nephew for years.
A church inquiry into decades of abuse cases later said that 13 victims had committed suicide because they were molested.
Similar scandals have rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands over the past two years. Pope Benedict has apologized for the abuse and issued tougher new standards to have bishops report abuse to local police.
Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Elizabeth Fullerton