French bishops launch 11-point plan to fight clergy sex abuse

La Croix International [France]

March 29, 2021

By Christophe Henning

At the end of the plenary assembly for the bishops of France, long-awaited decisions were taken to fight against pedocriminality

The Catholic bishops of France have adopted an 11-point, long-term strategy to fight sex abuse of minors or “pedocriminality” in the Church.

The strategy, which was ratified on the penultimate day of the March 23-26 spring assembly of the French Episcopal Conference (CEF), is aimed at investigating historic cases of abuse, supporting victims and enacting measures to prevent abuse in the future.

“We must take the word of the victims seriously,” said Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, the CEF president.

Speaking at a March 26 press conference from the Marian Shrine of Lourdes, where the bishops usually hold their plenary assemblies, the archbishop said his meetings with victims had strengthened his resolve to fight abuse.

The 59-year-old conference president gave a sober account of the work that lies ahead, explaining the importance of other groups such as an “independent national assistance body” that will listen to victims who are sometimes reluctant to turn to the Church or their bishop.

Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort also noted the creation of a new “Council for the Prevention and Fight Against Pedophilia” as a sign of the CEF’s strong “institutional” commitment to fighting abuse.

He said all the new 11-point strategy was supported by all bishops of France and was the “work of convergence” that had been carried out over the past two years.

Eleven resolutions

The strategy looks at the different levels of responsibility. It’s the first resolution that is both a mea culpa and a solemn commitment.

“We, the bishops of France, express our gratitude to the victims who have revealed what they have suffered, allowing these facts of abuse to be brought to light,” it says.

“They allow us to realize what has happened, to look with clarity at our operations and to make the necessary decisions so that the Church will be a ‘safe house’.”

After praising the victims for their courage, the bishops confess the Church’s failure to recognize the assault committed by priests as well as the shortcomings of “the ecclesial authorities [who] did not know how to see or hear”.

It is an assumed responsibility which entails the “imperative obligation” to tell the truth, report the facts to justice officials, encourage victims to take legal action and to offer them support.

An endowment fund

Among the other resolutions, the most anticipated were those concerning compensation for victims (resolutions 9 and 10).

The bishops had already agreed on the financial dimensions of the plan, in principle, at their assembly in November 2019. The new document specifies the procedure, but it still does not provide any figures.

“A financial contribution will be paid to each victim who requests it to meet the costs necessary for his or her reconstruction, this contribution being either individualized according to the needs detailed by the person concerned, or a lump sum if this person does not wish to or cannot detail his or her care needs; this is within the limit of a ceiling to be determined,” the text states.

However, only those who are recognized as victims by their diocese and whose cases have undergone “civil and canonical procedures” are eligible to receive compensation.

Payment will come from an “endowment fund”, which is expected to initially contain 5 million euros. It is hoped that the endowment will be increased through donations from bishops, priests, deacons and the Catholic people.

A plaque has been installed in the cathedral of Luçon as an act of repentance for those who have suffered abuse from priests, March 14, 2021. (FRANCK DUBRAY/OUEST FRANCE/MAXPPP)
A plaque has been installed in the cathedral of Luçon as an act of repentance for those who have suffered abuse from priests, March 14, 2021. (FRANCK DUBRAY/OUEST FRANCE/MAXPPP)

A place of memory

The recognition given to the victims will also be expressed through the creation of a “national place of remembrance”, most likely in Lourdes (resolution 7), and the establishment of an annual “Day of Prayer for people who are victims of sexual violence and assault and abuse of power and conscience in the Church” (resolution 8), as requested by Pope Francis.

The bishops designated the Third Friday of Lent for the annual day. The initial Day of Prayer will therefore take place on March 12, 2022.

About half the points in the new strategy focus on creating structures to support the victims and respond to their needs. In this way, it is a recognition that there is still much necessary work needed to eradicate the scourge of pedocriminality and to devote resources to it over time.

This specialized “network” will be composed of a “council for the prevention and fight against pedophilia” (resolution 2) to which a new national service is added (resolution 3).

Sustainable structures and a significant investment which will have to coordinate the different measures has been decided.

All Church commissions or services that entail contact with young people (catechesis, Catholic teaching, youth ministry, etc.) will have a “referent person” appointed specifically to ensure the protection of minors (resolution 4).

There will also be a newly-created “national team of listeners” (resolution 5), a permanent body that will be able to take over from the diocesan listening cells and from the Independent Commission on Abuse in the Church (CIASE) , which will complete its work in a few months.

Committing to the future

Finally, still with the intention of streamlining the measures at the national level, the bishops want to create an “interdiocesan canonical penal tribunal for France” (resolution 6), recognizing that “the investigation of crimes and offenses and the determination of sentences require a certain specialization”.

The Church leaders also voted to create a “unit of vigilance and support” for priests implicated in or convicted of abuse (resolution 11).

In addition to these eleven resolutions, the French bishops also wrote a letter to Catholics on the fight against pedocriminality.

“Our Church has not always been a safe house… entire lives have been shattered, made complicated and painful,” they admitted.

The letter traces the work on fighting abuse the episcopal conference has done over the past two decades, especially since 2016.

But its main purpose is to present the new measures and urge Catholics to be more vigilant and supportive of the victims.

“These measures will disappoint some, they will surprise others,” emphasized Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort, during his closing remarks.

“They are modest, in fact. But they commit us for the future.”