French Cardinal’s Admission Renews Scrutiny of Church Sexual Abuse

New York Times [New York NY]

November 8, 2022

By Aurelien Breeden

A cardinal’s admission that he had behaved “reprehensibly” with a 14-year-old girl over three decades ago was one of several revelations that threw a gathering of French bishops into turmoil this week, renewing scrutiny of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in France a little over a year after a landmark report on the pervasiveness of the issue.

The admission of wrongdoing this week by Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, 78, who retired in 2019 after 18 years as the archbishop of Bordeaux, was one of two recent revelations that have stunned the Catholic community in France.

The other involved Michel Santier, 75, the former bishop of Créteil. He stepped down and was disciplined last year after decades-old accusations of sexual abuse against young adults, but the church authorities had not made his case public until the French news media uncovered it. Last month, Catholics angry about that silence protested in front of churches and cathedrals around the country to demand more transparency.

In total, according to Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, the archbishop of Reims and the president of the Bishops’ Conference of France, 11 former or current French bishops had been or still were involved in sexual abuse cases handled by legal or church authorities — most of them directly accused of abuse and others of concealing it.

Most of those cases were already known; one relates to a bishop who has since died. And some have ended in acquittals, including that of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the former archbishop of Lyon, who was found guilty and then cleared of failing to report a priest in his diocese who had admitted to sexually abusing dozens of Boy Scouts.

But the news from the bishops’ conference showed no sign of an end to a decades-long struggle by the Catholic Church to root out sexual abuse by clergy members around the world.

In a message to French Catholics, France’s 120 bishops wrote on Tuesday that they were “aware that these revelations have a painful impact on the victims, especially those who have chosen to trust us.”

“We are aware that many of the faithful, priests, deacons and consecrated persons are shaken,” the bishops wrote on the last day of their gathering over the past week in Lourdes, a popular Catholic pilgrimage site in southwestern France. “These feelings are also ours.”

Marie-Jo Thiel, an ethics professor at the University of Strasbourg’s Faculty of Theology, said on Tuesday in an interview with La Croix, the leading Catholic newspaper in France, that the recent revelations were “confirmation that no one in the church is infallible.”

“Last year, some were still raising their eyebrows over the systemic aspect of this crisis,” she said. “Today, that is no longer at issue for anyone.”

On Monday, in an unscheduled news conference, Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort had read out a letter by Cardinal Ricard, in which the cardinal said that he had decided to “no longer remain silent” about wrongful acts committed 35 years ago when he was a parish priest.

“I acted reprehensibly with a young 14-year-old girl,” Cardinal Ricard wrote in his letter, which was later published online by the bishop’s conference.

Cardinal Ricard did not provide specifics and did not identify the victim, but said that his behavior had “necessarily caused serious and lasting consequences” for her and that he had asked for her forgiveness.

French prosecutors have opened an investigation, although the accusations against Cardinal Ricard are almost certainly past France’s statute of limitations. An investigation targeting Bishop Santier is also underway.

The Vatican did not immediately comment on the admission by Cardinal Ricard, who was himself president of the Bishops’ Conference of France from 2001 to 2007. But the news appalled French Catholics and advocacy groups.

“Yesterday was a thunderclap,” Olivier Savignac, a member of De la Parole aux Actes!, an umbrella association of victims’ groups, said on Tuesday. Although victims were well aware of the scope of the problem, it was “unprecedented” for a prominent Catholic official to come forward, he said.

“Is the church going to continue hiding everything that it knows?” Mr. Savignac asked. “That’s what is at stake.”

Pope Francis has pledged to pursue a “zero tolerance” approach to clergy child sexual abuse and introduced laws requiring priests and nuns to report abuse accusations to church authorities. He has also introduced new norms to hold accountable senior prelates who were negligent in handling cases of abuse and abolished Vatican secrecy rules.

But critics say that results of efforts to effectively punish abuse by clergy have been mixed, particularly in the case of high-ranking clerics.

In 2019, Pope Francis expelled Theodore E. McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, from the priesthood, after the church found him guilty of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians over decades. To date, he is the only cardinal to have been defrocked for sexual abuse.

The pope recently acknowledged that there were still pockets of resistance on the issue.

“We are working with all that we can, but know that there are people within the church who still do not see clearly, who do not share,” Francis said on Sunday while speaking to reporters on the papal plane after a four-day trip to Bahrain.

“It is a process that we are undertaking, and we are carrying it out with courage, and not everyone has courage,” he said, adding that the “will of the church is to clarify everything.”

In France, the reckoning over sexual abuse in the Catholic Church culminated in a sweeping report last year that estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 children or vulnerable people had been abused over the past 70 years by clergy members or people affiliated with the church — a projection based on a general population survey, a public call for victims’ testimony, archival analysis and other sources.

The Bishops’ Conference of France had announced several measures in the wake of the report, including the sale of church real estate and other assets to compensate sexual abuse victims.

Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort said the church authorities would continue to improve their handling of abuse cases, to avoid “shortcomings, errors and failings” that often resulted in secretive and opaque procedures.

“It is much more violent to be kept in the dark by a lie” than it is to painfully but openly acknowledge the problem of abuse, he said on Tuesday in his closing speech in Lourdes.

But Mr. Savignac, from the victims’ association, said the church needed to move much faster and more proactively. He said compensation for abuse victims was still too sluggish, with processing times of over a year in some cases, because the body set up by the church in the wake of last year’s report to handle claims was understaffed. In September, that body said it had only processed 60 of about 1,000 claims.

“We are still far from what one might expect for the consideration of victims,” Mr. Savignac said.

Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Italy.