Justice

French academic charged over 'mass grave' of rotting bodies donated to research

Frederic Dardel, shown here in 2015, was charged with desecrating a corpse as part of a scandal that forced the closure of the Centre for Body Donations at Paris-Descartes University
Frederic Dardel, shown here in 2015, was charged with desecrating a corpse as part of a scandal that forced the closure of the Centre for Body Donations at Paris-Descartes University YOAN VALAT POOL/AFP/File

The former president of the prestigious Paris-Descartes university has been charged with defiling a corpse following revelations about the putrid conditions in which thousands of bodies donated to the faculty were kept.

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Frederic Dardel's lawyer confirmed that he had been charged on Friday after being questioned over the scandal that forced the closure of the Centre for Body Donations at Paris-Descartes University.

In 2019, the government shut down the centre, heralded as a "temple of anatomy" for over half a century, after reports that bodies had been left to rot, gnawed by mice or even sold.

France's news weekly, L'Express, broke the story in November 2019, and referred to a "mass grave in the heart of Paris".

It reported that photographs taken in the cold room of the Centre for Body Donations showed macabre scenes of bodies "naked, dismembered, eyes open, piled up on a gurney [...] in an indescribable jumble.

"Here, a decomposing leg dangles. There, another damaged, blackened and riddled with holes after being nibbled by mice," they wrote.

The Association Charnier Paris-Descartes, which represents families whose relatives had donated their bodies to the institution, welcomed the fact that the first person in authority had been charged "at last".  

Bodies 'sold' for up to 900 euros

The Centre for Body Donations was founded in 1953 and received hundreds of bodies a year before it was closed.

Unnamed sources told L'Express that while bodies had been stacked on top of each other for "decades", conditions had deteriorated sharply from 2013 onwards.

The magazine reported that one of the doors of the cold room was so rusty it no longer closed and that the air conditioning frequently broke down, forcing staff to incinerate some rotting bodies before they had been dissected.

It also revealed that bodies donated for teaching anatomy had been sold to private individuals or companies, with a limb going for up to 400 euros and a whole body for up to 900 euros.

The report, which was based on photographs taken inside the centre in 2016, caused a scandal.

In February 2020, 35 families whose relatives' corpses and body parts had been donated to the university filed a lawsuit for "violation of the integrity of the human body"

An investigation was launched and the university apologised to the families concerned.

In June 2020, a government agency in charge of inspecting education facilities concluded that there had been "serious ethical breaches" in the Centre's management.

The report noted that management had received various warnings which had gone unheeded until 2018.

Guilty of neglect

Two lab assistants have already been charged with violation of a corpse, as has Paris University, a new entity created in 2020 from the merger of Paris-Descartes University and a sister faculty.

Dardel had escaped censure until now.

After the centre was closed he was made a special advisor in the cabinet of Minister for Research Frederique Vidal and later appointed director of a unit at the state research facility CNRS.

His lawyer Marie-Alix Canu-Bernard argued that he had tirelessly lobbied the government to fund renovations of the centre, but that his appeals had gone unheard.

Speaking to AFP, she argued that the state, not Dardel, was guilty of neglect.

(with AFP)

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