The French State and clerical abuse

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) considers the contradictions of the French courts’ final ruling on Cardinal Barbarin’s failure to report suspected clerical abuse of minors and its troubling consequences

France’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, ruled on 14 April that the legal obligation to report sexual crimes against a minor ceases as soon as the victim becomes a capable adult. It was the former most senior Catholic in France, Cardinal Barbarin, whose obligation was at issue. It was his failure to report such assaults over several decades by Catholic scoutmaster (and until recently, priest), Bernard Preynat. He may be France’s most prolific paedophile, with an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 victims. The Cardinal knew of Preynat’s sexual assaults.

The consequence of this judgment is that Cardinal Barbarin is relieved of any legal responsibility to pay damages to victims in respect of his non-reporting of the abuse. The court could also have ruled upon the Cardinal’s criminal liability, but it was not invited to do so by the state prosecutor, so that avenue is now closed.

The judgment is likely to have come as a surprise to many, given it appears to be contrary to the mandatory reporting provisions of Articles 226-13 et 226-14 and is seemingly diametrically opposite to the position taken earlier by the Court of Cassation advocate general’s office. This was reported as follows:

The General Prosecutor’s Office of the Court of Cassation takes issue with [the position taken by the court of Appeal]. In the eyes [of the General Prosecutor’s Office], this would amount to authorizing any person receiving the confidences of victims, or of an aggressor, to remain silent “without incurring any criminal sanction“, as soon as he becomes aware of them “at a time when these victims have become major”.(by Agence France Presse, 2021 Feb 18)

In other words, the Office opposed that those aware of the sexual assault of a child should not escape any liability for failure to report it the moment the child victim becomes an adult. This is consistent with the previous case of a bishop similarly accused. Mgr André Fort was convicted in 2018 to 8 months in prison, suspended. “The obligation to report extends even if the victim has reached the age of majority and therefore has the capacity to file a complaint himself. Not having been appealed, it became final.”

In my view this sets an appalling precedent that betrays the mi nors subjected to such abuse, by allowing it to continue because of the reduced obligation to report it, as happened in the case of Preynat. The precedent also compounds the victims’ abuse by substantially reducing the chances of those facilitating such abuse being prosecuted for failing to report it

During the trial on appeal, the magistrates felt that Philippe Barbarin did not have to denounce the aggressions prescribed for some – the others could be denounced by the victims themselves, now adults. The General Prosecutor’s Office of the Court of Cassation disagrees with this analysis. In his view, this would be tantamount to allowing any person receiving the confidences of victims, or of an aggressor, to remain silent “without incurring any criminal sanction“, as soon as he becomes aware of them “at a time when these victims have become major“.

I would not be surprised if there was speculation about what convinced the Court to reverse the General Prosecutor’s Office earlier, and very sensible, stance.

The largest study of such abuse, in Australia, found that in respect of the sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church there “the average time between the first alleged incident date and the date the claim was received was 33 years” and only 11% of victims claim before they are adults. This confirms that a direct consequence of this ruling is that in the vast majority of cases the victims will become adults before claiming, absolving church officials with knowledge of any legal responsibility to report.

The latest ruling almost removes the previous incentive to report. The incentives for bishops (and others) to report need to be increased rather than being almost demolished, as is the result of this judgment.

Furthermore, a bizarre consequence of the precedent created by this ruling appears to me to be that adult victims themselves become liable to legal penalties for not disclosing their own abuse. Surely, if those drafting the law had intended it to be interpreted as the Court of Cassation has just ruled, it would have expressly provided an exemption for them? There is no such exemption.

The victims’ sacrifice has been enormous and many have had very difficult lives as a result of their abuse. They have fought for five years against a fundamentally hostile justice system that necessitated a private prosecution, they formed an association and have even been the subject of an award-winning film that touched the nation. Even all this has not been enough to secure any damages or any convictions.

Former victim Alexandre Dussot-Hezez told Agence France-Presse that “not everyone has an opportunity to speak out or seek justice. Sometimes there are traumas that prevent you taking this step, even if you’re of age. There are also family and religious pressures – not everyone has the strength to accuse a priest.

The strength of victims’ criticism should serve as a warning. Spokesman Devaux expressed a “feeling of shame” towards justice and concluded that “”our institutions are not up to the task”.

Most disturbing of all is that this judgement does not appear to have created the public outcry it should have done. Does the public not know or care about the suffering of these victims most of whose lives have been ruined by clerical lust?

Fr Pierre Vignon is a courageous priest from a mountain village who launched a petition for the Cardinal to step down. It garnered over 100,000 signatures as a reaction to the Cardinal Barbarin’s own inactions and his assertion to the press: “The majority of facts, thank God, are beyond the statute of limitations.” Without this petition, it is possible that the cardinal might still be in post and still hoping to become the next Pope.

The hundred thousand may well think that the petition achieved what justice should have done.

The last word must be left to the hero of the hour, Vignon: “Our legislation will have to adapt so that aggressors can no longer escape so easily and that the reporting of abuse is necessary for better protection of children and young people.” He is right. And that legislation needs to be mandatory reporting by those in institutions and the obligation needs to remain regardless of victims becoming adults, and with the longest possible time bar. A model of such legislation is here.

I will also be raising this issue at the United Nations at every possible opportunity, but I also appeal to the good people of France to put pressure on politicians in both houses of parliament to urgently reform the mandatory reporting law along the lines suggested here.

Keith Porteous Wood

An accompanying blog examines the widespread problem of clerics ignoring the mandatory reporting laws relating to sexual abuse and doing so with impunity