Politico.eu [Brussels, Belgium]
October 8, 2021
By Tom Heneghan
Any progress will depend on whether the commission’s recommendations are implemented.
A report outlining the scale of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in France over the past seven decades has shocked the country. But while the numbers were indeed shocking, the report wasn’t actually a surprise.
The steady drumbeat of cases exposed over the past 20 years made it hard to ignore the fact that the Church has a serious systemic challenge on its hands. The real shocker was that this was finally said out loud.
Carried out by an independent commission headed by respected former judge Jean-Marc Sauvé, the report gives size and shape to a scandal the Church can no longer cover up.
Presented before an audience including several Catholic leaders sitting in shamed silence, it estimated that at least 3,000 priests — around three percent of the country’s total — had preyed on minors and about 216,000 children had been abused. Another 114,000 were abused by lay Church workers.
This 485-page document isn’t the first of its kind in the Catholic world. The commission consulted and listed 10 similar studies carried out since 2004 in other countries like Australia, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States. And according to Sauvé, France has comparatively fewer abusers and so is actually “at the lower end of this scale.”
France has been confronting this issue as far back as 2001, when Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux was convicted, in a civil court, of covering up for an abusive priest in his diocese. Since then, Church leaders have regularly expressed remorse as new cases emerged and backed measures to prevent further abuse.
But their efforts fell short of what was needed. As deeper analyses emerged from Catholic reports in other countries, and abuse victims slowly started to speak out, pressure mounted for the same in France.
Finally, in 2016, the victims association La Parole Liberée accused successive Lyon archbishops of covering up for a serial abuser, Father Bernard Preynat. He was eventually defrocked and sentenced by a civil court to five years in prison, and the embattled Cardinal Philippe Barbarin had to quit the archdiocese in 2019.
The bishops conference decided to appoint the independent commission in 2018 and named Sauvé, a practicing Catholic, as its head.
Sauvé’s report, which includes detailed discussions of Church teachings and practices, does not recommend the red-flag reforms critics often demand, such as abolishing clerical celibacy or ordaining women as priests.
The Vatican has consistently rejected these changes, and including them would have ensured the report’s suggestions would not be implemented.
The 45 recommendations it does make, however, include other changes that many critics have been advocating for years. These include an increased place for the laity, changes in the role of priests and bishops and reforms to the Church’s legal system.
Although Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, head of the bishops conference, said the Church could no longer avoid this issue, it is unclear how many of these recommendations will actually be put into practice.
For example, the report says priests who learn of abuse through confessions must report predators to the police. Only last December, the French bishops defended the traditional secret of confession and only advised priests to urge abusers to give themselves up.
Stating that the Church should open up its hierarchical structure, the report adds that more lay people and women should be allowed to take part in decisions. Pope Francis agrees on this, but his reform efforts have come up against stiff opposition at the Vatican, and among conservative bishops around the world.
Additionally, the report criticizes the “excessive sacralization and identification of the priest with Christ,” which it says can give abusive priests an authority they can misuse. However, such changes would clearly go against a long tradition of elevating the priesthood above the laity.
Finally, the report also calls for a clearer distinction in the job descriptions for bishops and some heads of religious communities, so their religious and administrative functions are not combined in a way that helps cover up problems.
A revision of the Church’s canon law will come into effect in December. It will tighten safeguards against sexual abuse and focus more on the victim than the predator, as the report proposes.
But the law is not precise enough about which acts are illegal, the report says, and should classify them as violations of the fifth commandment (“thou shalt not kill”) rather than the sixth (“thou shalt not commit adultery’), as they are now.
According to Sauvé, the report is just one of several steps the Church in France must take to really tackle its sexual abuse problem, and it all depends on implementation.
As he told Le Figaro, “This report will be a failure if most of our recommendations are not followed up.”