ROME – In response to a decision by a French court to award damages to a nun dismissed from her religious order after 34 years of service, the Vatican has lodged a formal protest with the French embassy to the Holy See complaining of violations of religious freedom.

“Such a sentence by the Tribunal of Lorient,” the note said, referring to the municipality where the case was heard, “could raise not only questions regarding immunity, but, since it regards internal discipline and membership in a religious institute, could also give rise to grave violations of the fundamental right of religious freedom and of the right of free association of Catholic faithful.”

The case pivots on Mother Marie Ferréol, who had been superior of a small traditionalist community of French religious women founded in 1943 by an abbot close to the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who led the community of St. Pius X in breaking with Rome over reforms following the Second Vatican Council.

The community, called the Institute of the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Spirit, numbers roughly 100 sisters and operates five schools.

According to media reports in France, the community originally became the subject of controversy between 2011 and 2014, when several members reportedly were subjected to exorcisms at the hands of the community’s chaplain, who was also a practitioner of “agape therapy,” a psycho-spiritual approach which has denounced by the French bishops as potentially abusive.

A Vatican intervention at the time resulted in the removal of the chaplain and some of the sisters responsible for the controversial practices, but, according to observers, left behind a growing rift between more traditional members of the community and sisters more disposed to post-Vatican II reforms.

A second Vatican intervention in 2020, led by Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, at the time still head of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for Bishops, resulted in the dismissal of the 57-year-old Ferréol, whose given name is Sabine Baudin de la Valette, and who was perceived as leading the more traditionalist camp.

According to media reports, Ferréol was left without any means of financial support from the community, and was compelled to rely on the French Revenu de Solidarité Active, referring to a minimum income guaranteed by the state.

In turn, Ferréol filed suit with a French civil court, claiming she’d in effect been fired without cause. Her attorney, Adeline le Gouvello de la Porte, asserted that the Vatican action violated French labor laws because the nun was terminated without being informed of the grounds for the action, nor given the chance to mount a defense.

On April 3 the court in Lorient sided with Ferréol, ordering Ouellet, the community and two other Vatican-appointed officials who conducted the investigation to pay roughly $215,000 in damages and fines.

In the wake of the verdict, the community immediately announced plans to file an appeal with a court in Rennes. A statement issued by the community defended Ferréol’s ouster.

“This decision was taken by the Supreme Pontiff following an apostolic visit carried out by religious visitors external to our institute,” the statement said. “Drawing on numerous witnesses, the apostolic visit found that the behavior of Sabine Baudin de La Valette within our institute was gravely inappropriate.”

The community also accused the judge in Lorient of “numerous errors of fact and of law” in reaching the verdict.

Though French courts previously have heard cases involving charges of sexual abuse against Catholic clerics, this is apparently the first time a tribunal has attempted to apply French labor laws to an internal ecclesiastical dispute.