CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE

Report finds French Catholic clergy sexually abused more than 200,000 children

An independent commission has published its report on sexual abuse by Church authorities in France.
An independent commission has published its report on sexual abuse by Church authorities in France. AP - Martin Meissner

A two and a half year investigation into sexual abuse within the French Catholic Church has found that 216,000 minors were victims of abuse from 1950 to 2020 – in what an independent commission on Tuesday said was a massive phenomenon covered up for decades by a "veil of silence".

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The commission found that the "vast majority" of victims were pre-adolescent boys from a variety of social backgrounds.

When claims against lay members of the church such as teachers at Catholic schools are included in the figures, the number of victims climbs to 330,000 over the seven decades.

The abuse was systemic said Jean-Marc Sauvé, the head of the commission that compiled the report. Presenting the findings to the public on Tuesday he said the church had shown "profound, total and even cruel indifference towards the victims".

Not only did the church fail to prevent the abuse, he said, it also failed to report it and sometimes knowingly put children in touch with predators. 

“It wasn't just a few isolated, deviant individuals, but a whole organisation, a way of thinking, social relations, organised silence and inadequate institutional responses," commission member Alice Casagrande told RFI.

"The church can’t just say 'such and such a perpetrator' must pay reparations; it has to take on both judicial and moral responsibility."

Shame and horror

The revelations are just the latest to rock the Catholic Church, after a series of sexual abuse scandals around the world.

Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the Bishops' Conference of France (CEF), which co-requested the report, expressed his "shame and horror" at the findings.

"My wish today is to ask forgiveness from each of you," he said.

Francois Devaux, who set up a victims' association La Parole Libérée, told church representatives: "You are a disgrace to our humanity.

"In this hell there have been abominable mass crimes... but even worse, there has been betrayal of trust, betrayal of morale, betrayal of children."

Reparations

The independent commission was set up by Catholic bishops in France in 2018 to shed light on abuses and restore public trust in the church.

Sauvé said the problem remained. Up to the 2000s the church had shown indifference to victims and only began to change its attitude in 2015-16.

The case of Philippe Barbarin, an archbishop initially convicted of not telling police of a priest's abuse of boy scouts, drew outrage after he was acquitted in January 2020.

Sauvé urged the church to pay reparations, although the majority of cases are well beyond the statute of limitations for prosecution.

The report recommended the Catholic church overhaul its internal legal system, reform its governance, rethink training and look at the overwhelming power wielded by priests.

It also advocated an increase in the number of lay preachers and women in the church.

Veil of silence

The commission had identified around 2,700 victims through a call for testimony; thousands more had been found in archives.

But a wide-ranging study by France's INSERM health and medical research institute estimated much higher numbers of victims – about 216,000, up to 330,000 if abuse by lay members is included.

It found that 2.5 percent of French clergy since 1950 had sexually abused minors, a ratio below the 4.4 to 7 percent uncovered by similar inquiries in other countries.

"If the veil of silence covering the acts committed has finally been torn away... we owe it to the courage of these victims," wrote Sauvé.

The Vatican

Pope Francis "learned with sorrow" about the content of the investigation, a Vatican statement said on Tuesday.

In May 2019 the Pope vowed to address abuse by priests, ordering people who were aware of cases to report them to church officials. 

François Devaux, who was abused by the now defrocked priest Bernard Preynat, thanked the commission and said he hoped the report would be a turning point.

"You have finally brought victims an institutional recognition of the church's responsibility, something that bishops and the pope have not yet been prepared to do," he said.

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