La Croix International [France]
November 4, 2022
By Arnaud Bevilacqua
The so-called “Santier affair” is overshadowing the autumn plenary of the Catholic episcopal conference of France, as people demand answers from their Church leaders
One year after the French Bishop’s Conference (CEF) held a very intense plenary assembly, during which its members took institutional responsibility for the Church’s sex abuse crisis, the bishops are once again meeting amidst public anger over the “Michel Santier affair”, an abuse case concerning one of their retired confreres.
Santier, former bishop of the Créteil diocese in the outskirts of Paris, was disciplined by the Vatican in 2021 for acts of “voyeurism” that were aggravated by the misuse of his spiritual authority and the sacraments. But the canonical sanctions remained secret and were only revealed recently by the press. This has caused bewilderment and anger among members of the French Catholic Church, which now seems to be careening from one crisis to another.
The bishops, who began a six-day meeting on Thursday in the Marian shrine town of Lourdes, are well aware of their people’s sentiments. And some of the Church leaders have not hidden their own exasperation. “We are all discredited because of this. I expect explanations,” said one furious prelate. “I would like to see the bishops who are guilty of a dereliction of duty resign,” he said.
“Desire for justice and truth”
Bishop Luc Meyer, who recently became the ordinary of Rodez, sent a message to the people in his southern French diocese, explaining that this was his first CEF assembly. He said he was “taking” with him their “faith”, “fervor” and “desire for justice and truth”.
Bishop Matthieu Rougé of the Nanterre diocese in metropolitan Paris expressed similar sentiments in an interview with Radio Notre-Dame. He said that during a recent diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes, he was able to share his people’s “bewilderment, anger, and temptation to be discouraged”.
Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, the CEF president, promised that the Santier affair would be addressed during the plenary assembly. Faced with “the demand for greater clarity on these canonical procedures and the measures that can result from them”, he acknowledged that it’s necessary to “reflect on changes in our procedures, our way of handling them and how we communicate the results”. “The bishops will begin to work on this at the November plenary assembly,” the archbishop said.
Outside observers and questions surrounding the Santier affair
In a change to the original schedule for the six-day meeting, which was to be held completely behind closed doors, the bishops will now hold at least one of their sessions in the presence of outside observers.
They had also set aside just one morning (Nov. 7) to discuss the ongoing follow-up to the devastating report that the Independent Commission on Abuse in the Catholic Church (CIASE) issued last year. The single session was for leaders of the nine working groups set up in November 2021 to deepen the reflection on the recommendations of the CIASE report to give an update on their progress. But the CEF has had to adapt. “We need time to talk to each other,” demanded one of the bishops.
This is especially true since the bishops are coming under increased pressure from committed French Catholics. For instance, “Agir pour notre Eglise”, a network aimed at combating Church-related abuse, organized a series of rallies over the weekend of October 29-30 to “send a message to the bishops”. The events got a lot of attention on social media.
“There is anger and despair,” said Alix Huon, a member of the anti-abuse network. “The bishops need to hear that there are many of us practicing Catholics who’ve been pillars of parishes for years who are saying: enough is enough!” He said the network held the weekend events because “we want to tell those who want things to change that we are with them, but that they must stop hiding behind the permanent search for unity”.
“Agir pour notre Église” is also urging the bishops to make concrete commitments. For example, whenever there is an investigation or former conviction of a cleric it should be announced to the parish council where he is currently serving as well as to people in his former and future assignments. The network is also demanding that any cleric who is convicted of sexual abuse be suspended from all ministry.
“We would like the bishops to recognize that the way the Santier case was handled is not acceptable,” insisted Alix Huon. “It is too easy to take refuge behind Rome.”