Abuse charges against dead priest known as ‘Picasso of churches’

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

January 27, 2022

By Tom Heneghan

The French Church has been rocked by repeated scandals over clerical sexual abuse in recent years.

French churches faced a new challenge when it turned out that a priest known as the “Picasso of the Churches” for his prolific church art had sexually abused minors before his death in 1994.

The dioceses of Lyon, Grenoble and Saint Etienne issued a joint statement saying they had received many credible accusations against Fr Louis Ribes and would follow them up. They said his artworks would be “taken down and put away” and urged potential victims to come forward.

Lyon Archbishop Olivier de Germay, whose predecessor Cardinal Philippe Barbarin resigned over a major scandal there, said the Church aimed to uncover all such cases. “Even if it is painful, the Church must follow this line,” he said.

Fr Ribes, who used bright colours and a vaguely cubist style, created dozens of paintings and stained glass windows in the region in the 1950s through 1970s and at least one fresco. 

Taking down paintings has already started, but stained glass presents problems because it is part of the church building and therefore often public property in France. If the church is a historical monument, heritage authorities must also be consulted.

The French Church has been rocked by repeated scandals over clerical sexual abuse in recent years, especially a hard-hitting report last October that estimated 216,000 victims over the decades since 1950.

The wave of accusations against Fr Ribes apparently began with research done by the independent commission that drew up that report.

Fr Ribes, who taught art in local seminaries, often had minors pose for him nude in sessions that could end in abuse, victims said.

A man told the magazine Marianne the priest had raped him frequently between the age of 8 and 14 and demanded Ribes’ artwork be removed from churches. 

A meeting at his home village in St Etienne diocese was attended by a dozen victims, including a women who said he had touched her repeatedly during posing sessions and her brother who said the priest showed boys pornographic videos.

“It was in his room, on his bed. And once the drawing was finished, the touching began,” said another woman who was nine at the time. “It was art, he was a famous artist. He was a friend of my parents who were a thousand miles from suspecting what was happening.”

Victims asked whether evidence of this abuse, such as photographs of children or his reportedly large video collection, was discovered upon his death. If so, they asked, why was it covered up.