March 2, 2021
By Rick Noack
The head of a commission examining sexual abuse in France’s Catholic Church put the possible number of child victims at more than 10,000 on Tuesday, portending a public reckoning in a country where church officials long stalled efforts to investigate complicity.
The Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, set up two years ago with the approval of French church officials, has so far received more than 6,500 testimonies from victims and witnesses on incidents alleged to have happened in the past seven decades.
“The big question for us is: How many victims came forward? Is it 25 percent? 10 percent, 5 percent or less?” commission leader Jean-Marc Sauvé told journalists.
“It is very possible that the victims will reach at least the number of 10,000. The work in progress, and in particular the survey of the general population, will make it possible to specify the number,” he said. The final tally will also be based on public health data and documents from church archives.
Even two decades into the clergy abuse scandal, Sauvé said, the scale of what appears to have happened in France is startling.
“We were very surprised by the number of calls,” he said in an interview last month, relaying that the commission had been contacted by about 400 people a month. “Their stories are a true memorial of pain. Entire lives have been devastated.”
About 60 percent of French adults identify as Catholic, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted from 2015 to 2017. But the exact number of practicing Catholics remains difficult to ascertain because of France’s strict limits on collecting ethnic or religious data.
The same limitations make it hard to track the impact of abuse scandals on church members in France. Some other European countries have experienced dramatic drops in membership.
Tuesday’s preliminary report comes ahead of an assembly of French church leaders later this month at which they are expected to announce mechanisms to prevent more crimes and ways to support victims.
Some victims’ organizations have accused the church of attempting to cut the process short and avoid having to discuss the official recommendations that will be published by the commission in the fall.
As in other countries, the Catholic Church in France has come under pressure to compensate victims. In 2019, French bishops agreed to provide payments to victims — a decision that was welcomed by some victims’ groups at the time, even as it remained a vague pledge.
Several key questions remain unanswered, including who would be eligible for payments.
A proposal deemed inappropriate could intensify questions about the role of the Catholic Church and its ability to reform.
In Germany, where a 2018 report found that more than 3,600 people were sexually abused by clergy between 1946 and 2014, many victims have criticized as insufficient a plan to compensate victims with up to $60,000 each.
Even more generous financial compensation is unlikely to end the debate about the church’s complicity in abuse.
In November, an unprecedented Vatican report concluded that John Paul II, who was pope from 1978 to 2005, consciously overlooked sexual misconduct claims against an American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked only in 2019. The document detailed how reports relayed to the Vatican framed accusations as dismissible and unsubstantiated, contributing to a decades-long coverup.
“I renew my closeness to victims of any abuse and commitment of the church to eradicate this evil,” Pope Francis said after the report was released.
Victims in France have complained about a lack of action to prosecute abuse by priests — a problem they say has only begun to improve in recent years.
“Thanks to [the victims], the republican judiciary has made progress in its awareness of this plague,” François Devaux, the head of a French victims’ group, told the daily Le Parisien last year.
Devaux was one of the accusers in a high-profile case against ex-priest Bernard Preynat, who was convicted last year of having abused dozens of minors over two decades.
The scandal rocked the French Catholic Church and led to the resignation of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, one of its most senior officials, who was accused of not having denounced the abuse during his time as archbishop in Lyon.
Barbarin was convicted in 2019 of not reporting abuse to civil authorities and given a six-month suspended prison sentence, but an appeals court later overturned that verdict.
In response to the scandals, the Catholic Church pledged more transparency. The Vatican also last year published new guidelines for bishops, directing them not to dismiss accusations even if they appear vague or initially dubious.
Whereas the guidelines do not obligate church officials to contact the police when made aware of accusations, victims’ groups in France hope for a stronger signal of cooperation, as the country’s Catholic Church prepares for a likely damning report this year.
“There has been a real system of abuse in a number of Catholic institutions or religious communities,” said Sauvé, the head of the French commission, according to French media.