Clerical abuse victims are being betrayed. The state must act now.

International Association of Free Thought

May 15, 2021

By Keith Porteous Wood

Keith Porteous Wood, spokesperson of IAFT and President of the National Secular Society (UK) cites numerous examples of clerics seemingly not being subjected to French law for failing to report suspected clerical abuse of minors, as has been required since 2000. He argues that fundamental changes are needed for victims to be protected.

In 2019, the former most senior Catholic cardinal in France (Philippe Barbarin) was sentenced to six months in prison, albeit suspended, for failing to report abuse of scouts over decades in a Catholic troop led by Bernard Preynat, now regarded as probably France’s most prolific paedophile. Preynat was only recently defrocked as a priest.

Given the guilty verdict, there was clearly a case to answer, yet Preynat’s victims had been unable to persuade the public prosecutor to prosecute Cardinal Barbarin and had to resort to an expensive private prosecution. The public prosecutor’s opposition continued when, given the guilty verdict, there was clearly a case to answer, but Preynat’s victims failed to persuade the public prosecutor to support Cardinal Barbarin’s prosecution, and they had to apply as civil parties to ask the courts to establish their damages. The public prosecutor’s opposition continued when Barbarin’s conviction was appealed and a third time, in April 2021, when the case reached France’s highest court, the Cour de Cassation, at the application of the victims. The Court of Cassation had to examine the civil aspect of the Barbarin case as the court of last instance. Even in this area (damages and interest), the Court declined to recompense victims for their suffering.

By this extraordinary decision, apparently as a result of an unexplained change in the jurisprudence of the Court of Cassation, the Cardinal escaped even civil liability.

More information in this companion blog

Most disturbing, and scarcely believable in a state that prides itself on its secularism, was that in 2020 Preynat, despite having admitted the abuses, was permitted without explanation to walk free from court despite having admitted the abuses. Yet a lawyer testified that he believed Preynat had abused 3,000 – 4,000 victims (though only eight testified at the trial). His ruse was to appeal as soon as he was convicted and, predictably, withdraw his appeal after he was a free man. Then – to the fury of his victims – he escaped even a day in prison on the grounds of alleged ill health.

According to Church documents, those in the Church have “a compelling obligation to report [such abuse] to civil justice (like any citizen) and to canonical justice”.

Yet in 2017, the online news outlet Mediapart accused 25 named French bishops from all over the country of failing over decades to disclose such abuse. The bishops have not denied the accusations. Very few clerics have ever voluntarily reported a clerical abuser to the authorities (I know of only one), at least until the Barbarin debacle.

It is inconceivable that many clerics will not have known of such abuse as there has been so much of it. The highly respected chair of the investigating commission CIASE has just trebled his estimate to 10,000 clerical victims in France. In my opinion a considerable multiple of this would be much more plausible: at 10,000, a third of the total is the result of Preynat alone.

Even more disturbing has been the indulgent attitude of public prosecutors towards clerics failing to obey the mandate to report suspected sexual abuse of minors. No public prosecutor brought any prosecutions following the Mediapart exposé. No cleric found guilty has ever served a prison term, or even been fined, for which the law provides. Victims are betrayed at every turn and these failures directly facilitate the abuse to continue.

In 2018 André Fort, former bishop emeritus of Orléans, appeared to consider himself above the secular law. He refused to attend court and was threatened with a year’s imprisonment for failure to attend court and for his “strategy of flight, suffocation and lies”. He then became only the second bishop in France to be found guilty of failure to report Child Sexual Abuse.

An article published in April 2021 in La Croix, which normally reflects Church policy, alarmingly raises the possibility that the bishops may be contemplating dealing with sexual assaults in canonical courts and abandoning civil ones altogether.

French bishops are creating a national “inter-diocesan Canonical Criminal Court” providing” an ecclesial response to sexual assault offences” as well as the annulment of marriages.

In a section entitled  “Historic return” nostalgic references are made to the “Old Regime [i.e. pre-Revolution times] in which clerics were judged only by ecclesiastical justice” and of “The judge is the bishop’: [being] the basic principle of ecclesial justice”. (Clearly, this relates to sexual assault offences rather than the annulment of marriages.)

The appeal to the Church is obvious. The maximum penalty of ecclesiastical justice is defrocking, and there is no criminal record – and the judges will include the 25 bishops that allegedly failed to report abuse to the civil authorities.

The La Croix article acknowledges that some in church circles view this development with concern. “An instructor judge of the Lyon court for several years, Bénédicte Draillard, makes no secret of her bitterness:  “This justice is 150 years out of date: there is no place for victims and it is always clerics who judge clerics, it is a bastion of clericalism”.  Her remarks will I suspect strike a chord with abuse victims, who are so powerless in ecclesiastical justice proceedings.

Criminal organisation?

And this year, in the context of clerical abuse, the head of the monks and nuns association, Véronique Margron, formed the “impression that a number of dioceses were criminal organisations”. Similarly, the former judge who heads the abuse commission concluded that some abuse cases came close to looking like “a criminal enterprise”.

Neither house of the French Parliament has taken this growing crisis at all seriously. How much more should it take for them, for the sake of victims, to institute a judge-led inquiry into clerical abuse, propose improvements to the law on mandatory reporting of abuse and decide how to require the courts, prosecutors and other officials involved with justice to subject clerics to the law without favour?

Keith Porteous Wood