The Guardian [London, England]
October 12, 2021
By Angelique Chrisafis
Minister reprimands top bishop for claiming the secrecy of confessional ‘above laws of the Republic’
Catholic priests must report all child sexual abuse allegations to police, including if they hear about it in the secrecy of the confession box, the French interior minister has said after reprimanding France’s top bishop for claiming that the secrecy of the Catholic confessional was “above the laws of the Republic”.
France is reeling from the publication last week of a devastating independent report which found that at least 330,000 children were victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and lay members of church institutions over the past 70 years, and that the crimes were covered up in a “systemic way” by the church.
France’s top bishop,Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, had initially expressed “shame and horror” at the report, but in an interview a few days later he sparked outrage by rejecting the commission’s recommendation to require priests to inform police of any child abuse cases learned about during the sacrament of confession.
Moulins-Beaufort, the head of the Bishops’ Conference of France, had told Franceinfo: “The secrecy of confession is a requirement and will remain a requirement – in a way, it is above the laws of the Republic. It creates a free space for speaking before God.”
The interior minister, summoned Moulins-Beaufort for a long meeting on Tuesday in which he made clear that professional secrecy – including that of the Catholic confessional – did not apply to disclosures of potentially criminal cases of sexual violence against children, which priests were obliged to report to the police and justice system.
Immediately after the meeting, Darmanin was applauded by members of parliament in the National Assembly when he said: “I told him what I say to all religions: there is no law that is superior to the laws of the National Assembly and the Senate … The French Republic respects all religions from the moment they respect the Republic and the laws of the Republic.”
Following the meeting, De Moulins-Beaufort issued a statement asking for forgiveness from people offended by his comments last week. The Bishops Conference of France said in a statement that the scale of the abuse detailed in the report meant the church should review its practises, and that work was needed “to reconcile the nature of confession with the need to protect children.”
President Emmanuel Macron, who has criticised ultra-conservative Muslims in the past for what he described as attempts to subvert French law, had asked the interior minister to hold the meeting with the Catholic bishop in order to “make sure that things are clear,” the government spokesperson said last week.
“Nothing takes precedence over the laws of the Republic in our country,” the spokesperson, Gabriel Attal, had said.
Moulins-Beaufort angered victims’ groups with his comments that priests were not obliged to report sexual abuse if they heard about it during an act of confession, a Catholic ritual used to admit to sins. His words were in line with new Vatican guidelines, released last year on handling clerical child abuse cases, which state that any crime discovered during confession is subject to “the strictest bond of the sacramental seal”.