French catholic church

French bishops meet to consider responsibility, compensation for child sex abuse

The annual spring meeting of the French bishops' conference, in the southern city of Lourdes.
The annual spring meeting of the French bishops' conference, in the southern city of Lourdes. © Conférence des évêques de France

French Catholic bishops are meeting this week to decide what to do about child sex abuse in the Church. The senior clerics will vote on resolutions on Friday, but it is unclear if anything concrete will come of the meeting, ahead of an independent commission’s report on the issue to be published in September.

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The yearly spring meeting of the French bishops' conference (Cef), held remotely for most of the 200 participants (except for the president Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, bishop of Reims, and a dozen others, who are meeting in person at Lourdes), should end on Friday with a vote on resolutions, which spokesperson Vincent Neymon said will conclude a first phase of work on the issue of child sex abuse “to allow the French Church to enter a new era”.

Abuse, which has been going on for years in the French Catholi Church, has come to light over the last few years, with victims coming forward and some high-profile accusations and convictions.

The Church, considering the issue to be a crisis that is repelling some of its adherents, has been organising work groups over the last two years to decide what to do about it, including how to commemorate victims of abuse, financial compensation, prevention and support for those who committed the crimes.

Meeting behind closed doors

At this week’s meeting, which started Tuesday with a public conference and debate on ecology and church finances, bishops will meet in a closed-door session on sex abuse. The idea of holding the debates in private is "to give the most freedom to the bishops” to speak freely on issues that not everyone agrees on, said Neymon.

At issue is the question of responsibility, the Church’s preferred term, rather than guilt, for those involved in the abuse of minors: Who should be held accountable for events that happened sometimes decades ago? How to address the complicity of hierarchies who often covered up individual acts of abuse? And how should victims be compensated?

At an extraordinary assembly in February, bishops and Church leadership addressed the issue of “responsibility”.

Independent conclusions

This week “the bishops will reflect on how the French Church and society can best receive the report by the independent commission on abuse,” said Neymon, referencing the Ciase, the Independent commission on church sex abuse, which is to publish a report on incidents of child sex abuse in the French Church since 1950.

Earlier in March the commission estimated that there could be at least 10,000 victims of abuse at the hands of French priests over the last 70 years.

The Cef asked for the report, which will address responsibility and compensation.

The conclusions and recommendations will have to be understood and integrated not only by the bishops and the hierarchy, but also “by everyone in the Church”, says Neymon.

Compensation for victims

There is a general consensus within the Church that victims should receive some kind of financial support, to pay for treatment and move on with their lives.

The bishops already backtracked on a decision in 2019 to offer a lump sum to each victim, in the face of criticism from both victims and church members.

Other issues that could be raised this week are ways in which priests can ask for forgiveness, as well as a memorial site for victims. Some in the Church have called for the establishment of a national church tribunal, which would rule on cases of alleged abuse.

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