October 5, 2021
By Rick Noack and Chico Harlan
A major report released Tuesday said French Catholic clerics had abused more than 200,000 minors over the past 70 years, a systemic trauma that the inquiry’s leader described as deep and “cruel.”
The report’s findings could trigger a public reckoning in a country where church officials long stalled efforts to investigate complicity. The findings also add to the picture of country-by-country trauma within a religion that has tended to find abuse on a stunning scale anywhere it has looked.
The Vatican said in a statement that Pope Francis had been informed of the report during a recent visit by French bishops. “His thoughts turn first to the victims, with immense sorrow for their injuries and gratitude for their courage to speak out,” the statement said, adding that Francis hopes the French church can follow a path of “redemption” after becoming aware of this “appalling reality.”
The Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, set up more than two years ago with the approval of French church officials, examined decades of accusations in much the manner of other landmark reports — whether from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Australia or the United States.
Commission leader Jean-Marc Sauvé said his team had identified only a small percentage of victims, but academic research and other sources meant that the real number is likely around 216,000, or even around 330,000 if one includes sexual abuse by lay members. The vast majority of the victims were male, according to the report. The authors cautioned that the margin of error could be several tens of thousands.
The numbers, said Sauvé, are “overwhelming and cannot remain without consequences.”
“The church failed to see, it failed to hear, and failed to pick up on the weak signals,” he said. “It failed to take the rigorous measures that were needed.”
Several cases have been forwarded to law enforcement officials, or — in cases where the window of prosecution had passed — to church officials. Overall, the report estimates the number of perpetrators to be at least around 3,000, with most of them being priests or clerics.
The commission’s conclusions are partially based on more than 6,000 testimonies, including from victims and witnesses.
“You’re coming back from hell,” victims’ representative François Devaux told commission members during a presentation of the report on Tuesday.
Then, appearing to address church representatives, he said: “You have to pay for all those crimes.”
“You are a disgrace to our humanity,” he added.
Earlier this year, commission leader Sauvé put the possible number of child victims at more than 10,000, but cautioned at the time that the estimate could rise.
“The big question for us is: How many victims came forward? Is it 25 percent? Ten percent, 5 percent or less?” Sauvé told journalists at the time. “Their stories are a true memorial of pain. Entire lives have been devastated,” he said.
Across the church, decades of abuse revelations — about the crimes of both parish priests and high-ranking cardinals — have gradually eroded trust in the religion while causing an ongoing crisis for the Vatican and the pope.
As part of dealing with the scourge, Francis has written letters of apology, gathered bishops at the Vatican, and drawn up new rules for responding to accusations. But the church has also, at times, been left scrambling — as the consequences of the abuse crisis ripple beyond the Vatican’s control.
Anger in the aftermath of Germany’s 2018 abuse inquiry, for instance, has set off an extraordinary reckoning. Bishops, in meetings in the wake of the abuse report, have opened tensions with the Vatican by signaling their willingness to reexamine some of the church’s central stances on priestly celibacy and sexuality. German bishops days ago called for the church to bless same-sex marriage — a call that flies in the face of a Vatican ban.
Bishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, the head of the French Catholic bishops’ conference, described feeling overwhelmed by the number of victims, and called the scale of the abuse “staggering.”
“I express my shame, my fear, my determination to act,” the bishop said.
About 60 percent of French adults identify as Catholic, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted from 2015 to 2017. But the exact number of practicing Catholics remains difficult to ascertain because of France’s strict limits on collecting ethnic or religious data.
The same limitations make it hard to track the impact of abuse scandals on church attendance in France. Some other European countries have experienced dramatic drops in membership.
The report released Tuesday identified several possible measures to address the church’s institutional failures, including increased supervision of priests and clerics and compensation for the victims.
“Compensation is not a gift, it’s something that is owed,” Sauvé said Tuesday.
Victims in France have complained about a lack of action to prosecute abuse by priests — a problem they say has only begun to improve in recent years. Sauvé said Tuesday that 2015 and 2016 marked a change in attitudes in the French Catholic Church.
In response to the scandals, the Catholic Church pledged more transparency. The Vatican also last year published new guidelines for bishops, directing them not to dismiss accusations even if they appear vague or initially dubious. Victims’ organizations have argued that those changes are not far-ranging enough.
Harlan reported from Rome.
Rick Noack is a Paris-based correspondent covering France for The Washington Post. Previously, he was a foreign affairs reporter for The Post based in Berlin. He also worked for The Post from Washington, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
Chico Harlan is The Washington Post’s Rome bureau chief. Previously, he was The Post’s East Asia bureau chief, covering the natural and nuclear disasters in Japan and a leadership change in North Korea. He has also been a member of The Post’s financial and national enterprise teams