French Church sets up new national court for canonical crimes

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

December 16, 2022

By Tom Heneghan

The French Church has opened a National Canonical Criminal Court, a novelty in the Catholic world, to have clerical and lay experts deal with major canonical crimes such as sexual abuse of adults, abuse of authority and financial crimes. 

It takes over from the diocesan or interdiocesan tribunals that used to handle such cases. Lesser cases, such as marriage nullifications, make up the majority of cases at the diocesan level and will continue to be adjudicated there.  

Clerical sexual abuse of minors remains the responsibility of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), as does accusations against a bishop who, since appointed by the Pope, also comes under the Vatican. Rome can refer cases back to the French court but will handle all appeals.

This first national canonical court was created in response to a proposal by the so-called Sauvé report of 2021 into clerical sexual abuse.

It aims to remedy problems in the Church justice system revealed by the abuse crisis. Many diocesan courts have few or no clerical experts on abuse or lay canon lawyers able to represent a defendant.  

Bishops tended to opt for administrative sanctions, often in secrecy, because the system was not made to treat abuse cases. By contrast, a national court could have a team of experts, clerical and lay, to judge a case more fairly no matter where it emerges in France.

“One can call this a change of scenery. It is an additional guarantee of independence,” said Ambroise Laurent, deputy secretary general of the bishops conference. 

Only the presiding judge and two assistants must be clerics. All other officials, the other judges, the promoter of justice (prosecutor) and lawyers, can be lay, but they must have a licence (master’s degree) in canon law. 

The initial group of 12 judges included nine ordained men and five laypeople, four of them women. 

Bishops remain responsible for referring cases to the court and applying its sanctions, but are left out of the court’s deliberations. Sessions are private but the court can make its decision public. 

There is a precedent for a national court. The Netherlands set up one in 2011. But it was treated as an interdiocesan court because the country has only seven dioceses. France has almost 100.