France faces hard-hitting report on clerical sexual abuse

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

March 9, 2021

By Tom Heneghan

France faces a hard-hitting report on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church this autumn after the head of an independent inquiry into such crimes since 1950 said it could reach a total of at least 10,000 cases. 

The commission, headed by retired judge Jean-Marc Sauvé, has been analysing self-reported cases and combing through diocesan archives for the past two years and expects to issue its report in October.

Speaking to journalists on 2 March, Sauvé indirectly confirmed media reports  of a potential total of 10,000 cases. His office later clarified that “it is very possible that the number of victims reaches 10,000. Work now in progress will allow us to give a more precise number”.

Part of the problem was that only some victims had contacted the commission. “What percentage of victims did this (inquiry) reach?” Sauvé asked, speculating that 25 per cent or fewer might have come forward.

The retired judge later told France Inter radio that about two-thirds of self-confessed victims were male and about one-third female. 

Half of the complaints to his commission came from the 1950s and 1960s, 18 percent in the 1970s and 12 per cent in the 1980s, he said. Since then, he said, “the percentage falls even further”.

Most abuse occurred on Catholic premises “especially in boarding schools, chaplaincies and youth groups”, he said. There were more cases of abuse at homes of Catholic families than in priests’ residences. 

Jean-Marc Sauvé, of la commission indépendante sur les abus sexuels dans l'église (CIASE) Stéphane Guiochon/PA
Jean-Marc Sauvé, of la commission indépendante sur les abus sexuels dans l’église (CIASE) Stéphane Guiochon/PA

In more than five per cent of cases, priests abused children while “helping with homework” in their bedrooms, Sauvé said. Some cases came close to looking like “a criminal enterprise”. 

Sauvé said his commission was also looking into how the Church could have fostered such behaviour and the problems it had dealing with identified abusers. 

“We see the Church has great difficulty applying its new rules (of zero tolerance and reporting to civil authorities) to old cases,” he said with reference to the abuse scandal gripping the Lyon archdiocese.

The slow revelation of hitherto unreported clerical sexual abuse has seriously undermined the Church’s image. “The whole of the moral discourse of the Catholic Church has undergone a process of disqualification,” observes sociologist Céline Béraud in her new book French Catholicism tested by sex scandals.