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Tom Heneghan is a former religious writer for Reuters. He now writes from Paris for the Tablet in London.
PARIS – A report describing the extent of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in France over the past seven decades has shocked the country. But while the numbers were indeed shocking, the report was not much of a surprise.
The constant drumbeat of cases exposed over the past 20 years has made it difficult to ignore the fact that the Church has a serious systemic challenge on its hands. The real shock is that it was finally said out loud.
Produced by an independent commission headed by the respected former judge Jean-Marc Sauvé, the report gives a dimension and a form to a scandal that the Church can no longer cover.
Presented to an audience comprising several Catholic leaders sitting in shameful silence, he estimated that at least 3,000 priests – about three percent of the country’s total – had attacked minors and about 216,000 children had been abused. Another 114,000 were abused by lay Church workers.
This 485-page document is not the first of its kind in the Catholic world. The commission consulted and listed 10 similar studies carried out since 2004 in other countries such as Australia, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States. And according to Sauvé, France has comparatively fewer aggressors and is therefore “at the bottom of this scale”.
France was confronted with this problem as early as 2001, when Bishop Pierre Pican de Bayeux was convicted in a civil court for covering up an abusive priest in his diocese. Since then, Church leaders have regularly expressed remorse when new cases emerged and supported measures to prevent further abuse.
But their efforts fell short of what was needed. As more in-depth analysis emerged from Catholic reports in other countries, and victims of abuse slowly began to speak out, pressure intensified for the same in France.
Finally, in 2016, the association of victims La Parole Libérée accused the successive archbishops of Lyon of having covered up a serial aggressor, Father Bernard Preynat. He was eventually defrocked and sentenced by a civil court to five years in prison, and Cardinal Philippe Barbarin had to leave the archdiocese in 2019.
The bishops’ conference decided to appoint the independent commission in 2018 and named Sauvé, a practicing Catholic, as its head.
Sauvé’s report, which includes detailed discussions of Church teachings and practices, does not recommend the landmark reforms that critics often call for, such as the abolition of clerical celibacy or the ordination of women priests.
The Vatican has consistently rejected these changes, and including them would have ensured that the report’s suggestions would not be implemented.
The 45 recommendations he makes, however, include other changes that many critics have been advocating for years. These include an increased place for the laity, changes in the role of priests and bishops, and reforms of the Church’s legal system.
Although Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the bishops’ conference, said the Church could no longer avoid this problem, it is not known how many of these recommendations will actually be put into practice.
For example, the report says priests who learn of abuse by confessing must report predators to the police. It was not until last December that the French bishops defended the traditional secrecy of confession and only advised priests to urge the attackers to surrender.
Stating that the Church should open up its hierarchical structure, the report adds that more lay people and women should be allowed to take part in decisions. Pope Francis agrees on this point, but his reform efforts have met stiff opposition in the Vatican and among conservative bishops around the world.
In addition, the report criticizes the “excessive sacralization and identification of the priest with Christ,” which it believes can give abusive priests an authority they can abuse. However, such changes would clearly run counter to a long tradition of elevating the priesthood above the laity.
Finally, the report also calls for a clearer distinction in the job descriptions of bishops and some heads of religious communities, so that their religious and administrative functions are not combined in such a way as to cover up the problems.
A revision of the canon law of the Church will come into force in December. It will strengthen safeguards against sexual abuse and focus more on the victim than the predator, as the report proposes.
But the law is not specific enough about which acts are illegal, the report says, and should classify them as violations of the Fifth Commandment (“you shall not kill”) rather than the Sixth (“you shall not do adultery ”), as they are now.
According to Sauvé, the report is just one of many steps the Church in France needs to take to truly tackle its problem of sexual abuse, and it all depends on implementation.
As he told Le Figaro, “this report will be a failure if most of our recommendations are not followed”.