Catholics in France in shock after accused priest commits suicide

La Croix International [France]

July 14, 2023

By Christophe Henning

Parish priest facing allegations of abusing a young teenage girl takes his own life in small town in northeastern France near the Belgian border

Catholics in the archdiocese of Cambrai, located in the northeastern France, remain in shock after a priest accused of sexually abusing a young teenage girl committed suicide.

Benjamin Sellier, parish priest in a small town of Avesnes-sur-Helpe less than ten miles from the Belgian border, died at 3 a.m. on July 11 after being struck by a freight train. The 47-year-old cleric was walking in the middle of the tracks and the train’s conductor did not see him in time to stop.

He was the fifth accused French priest in as many years to take his own life.

“We were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Father Benjamin Sellier, parish priest of the Avesnois region,” said Cambrai’s Archbishop Vincent Dollmann in an initial press release.

Legal proceedings

The archbishop confirmed to La Croix that the priest’s death was a suicide linked to difficulties related to an abuse accusation. Several months ago a young teenage girl filed a police report against Sellier and legal proceedings initiated by the Douai public prosecutor’s office were underway.

The priest was cooperating with the investigation and, pending a decision, was subject to precautionary measures. He was suspended from working with young people and had agreed to seek psychological counseling.

“Whatever the outcome of the proceedings, he was deeply affected by the consequences of a possible trial, and in particular by the outbursts on social media,” said a person familiar with his situation.

Local Catholics gathered at a neighboring parish time on Thursday evening to pray for the deceased priest.

A late vocation

Benjamin Sellier was born in 1976 in Landrecies, located in the Avesnois “natural regional park” in northeastern France. After studying law, he became director general of services in his home town.

He entered the seminary in Lille when he was 33 years old and was ordained a priest for the Cambrai archdiocese in June 2015 at age 40. He served as a seminarian, deacon and priest at two different parishes October 4, 2020 – at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic he was named to his latest assignment at St. Nicholas Parish in Avesnes-sur-Helpe.

The parish (collegiate) church, along with works of art and liturgical furnishings, were partially damaged by arson on the day after Easter in April 2021. France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, visited the damaged site and pledged to support the local Catholics.

“The collegiate church is a heritage treasure and a small spiritual lung, a place of strong popular devotion,” Sellier told the interior minister during the visit.

With his thick glasses and warm smile, this young priest with a “late vocation” was very popular with his parishioners, which made his suicide all the more shocking.

“While waiting for the public prosecutor’s office to determine the circumstances of this tragedy, I invite all the inhabitants of the archdiocese to respect the time of mourning, sorrow and prayer,” said Archbishop Dollmann.

“With you, I am deeply saddened, and my thoughts are with his family and all those who are particularly affected by his death,” he said.

The archbishop is scheduled to preside at Sellier’s funeral on July 17.

Three French priests committed suicide in 2020, and two others in 2018. With the exception of one priest from the diocese of Metz, all four were involved in cases of “inappropriate acts” or sexual assault. Another priest from the Versailles diocese also took his own life in 2022.