Church and State avoid fanning sexual abuse flames after report

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

October 21, 2021

By Tom Heneghan

Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, head of the French episcopal conference, has agreed with Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin to calm tensions after meeting to discuss the shocking Sauvé report on clerical sexual abuse of minors. 

Both issued conciliatory statements after a meeting where the archbishop admitted his statement that the secret of confession stood above France’s secular laws was “clumsy”. The report said a priest should inform police if he learned through confession that a minor had been abused.

The report, by an independent commission led by retired civil servant Jean-Marc Sauvé, estimated that 216,000 minors had been abused by priests in France since 1950. Another 114,000 were estimated abused by lay Church workers, it said.

“The scale of violence and sexual assault on minors … requires the Church to re-read its practices in light of this reality. Work is therefore necessary to reconcile the nature of confession and the need to protect children,” the archbishop said.

Darmanin praised the 12 October meeting as “a long and fruitful exchange” and said France had long respected the seal of confession as a professional secret. “But there are exceptions for crimes committed against children under 15 years old,” he added.

In his statement, Moulins-Beaufort emphasised the Church’s determination to combat sexual abuse and noted that 17 dioceses had already signed agreements with local judicial authorities to systematically inform them of credible abuse accusations.

Darmanin encouraged other dioceses to follow this example.

The agreements, which dioceses began to sign two years ago, are modelled after similar protocols signed between hospitals or schools with judicial officials. They do not mention confession, which is not the only way Church officials learn of abuse accusations. 

The bishops’ conference has asked Pope Francis to receive Sauvé and his committee to discuss their report. 

The Sauvé report has shocked French Catholics and several bishops around the country have held meetings with parishioners to discuss its findings and debate how the Church can respond. Reactions – especially to a Church appeal for funds to help pay an expected tsunami of reparation demands – have been mixed. 

Three prominent Church critics – François Devaux of the Lyon victims group La Parole Liberée, theologian Anne Soupa and Christine Pedotti, editor-in-chief of the lay Catholic weekly Témoignage Chrétien – have called for the whole episcopal  conference to resign, as the bishops in Chile did. There have also been calls for Moulins-Beaufort to resign.

French bishops will hold their autumn plenary meeting in Lourdes in early November to discuss their initial reactions to the Sauvé report.