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French priest admits 'caressing' boy scouts for 20 years in sex abuse trial

Father Bernard Preynat leaves as his trial is postponed due to the lawyers' strike at the courthouse in Lyon, France, January 13, 2020
Father Bernard Preynat leaves as his trial is postponed due to the lawyers' strike at the courthouse in Lyon, France, January 13, 2020 REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot
4 min

Accused of sexually abusing dozens of boy scouts in the 1970s and 80s, a French Catholic priest has confessed in court to "caresses" he knew were forbidden, saying for 20 years "it happened every weekend".

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Bernard Preynat told a court in Lyon on the first day of his trial that it could have been "four or five children a week".

"For me, at the time, I was not committing sexual assault but giving caresses, hugs," he said. "I was wrong."

Preynat's voice reportedly faltered as he admitted the interactions "brought me sexual pleasure".

But while he knew the actions were forbidden, he said he only finally understood that they were illegal thanks to "the accusations of the victims".

The accusers were aged seven to 14 when the alleged crimes were committed between 1971 and 1991, when Preynat was a scout leader in Lyon.

The allegations against him sparked the biggest crisis in the French Church in decades and last year saw a cardinal convicted of covering up the alleged crimes.

Preynat was defrocked by the Church last July.

The church at Saint-Luc de Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon, where Father Preynat was priest from 1971 to 1991.
The church at Saint-Luc de Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon, where Father Preynat was priest from 1971 to 1991. JEFF PACHOUD / AFP

Former scouts have claimed he touched and kissed them and forced them into reciprocal fondling while they were in his care, including at camps. He denies ever kissing the boys on the mouth.

Ten accusers and several victims' associations are civil parties to the proceedings.

Cardinal Barbarin appeals

The case first came to light in 2015 when a former boy scout went public with allegations that Preynat had abused him as a child 25 years earlier.

A trickle of initial testimony soon turned into a deluge, with more than 80 other people coming forward with allegations of abuse.

In March last year, a Lyon court found French cardinal Philippe Barbarin guilty of failing to report the claims against Preynat.

Barbarin, the city's archbishop and the most senior French cleric to get caught up in the global paedophilia scandal, was handed a six-month suspended sentence.

During the trial, the cardinal said he had confronted Preynat about the abuse "rumours" in 2010 but let the matter go after the priest insisted he had changed.

In 2014, after meeting one of the victims, Barbarin contacted the Vatican about the affair. Preynat was suspended until September 2015.

Civilian authorities charged him with sexual abuse in 2016. He risks ten years in prison.

Pope Francis rejected Barbarin's offer to resign, saying he would await the outcome of an appeal by the cardinal, who has stepped back from Church duties.

Two other senior French religious figures have been convicted of failing to report child abuse in the past: the archbishop of Bayeux-Lisieux, Pierre Rican, in 2001, and the former bishop of Orleans, Andre Fort, last year.

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