Opinion: French Catholic Church Relatively Untouched by Pedophile Scandal

By Michael Cosgrove
Digital Journal
September 26, 2010

Many countries have had to come to terms with major scandals involving the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and their subsequent cover-up by the Church, but that has not been the case for France.

America, Italy, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Belgium and many others, the list of countries whose Catholic Churches have seen their reputations reduced to tatters by pedophile practices often on an almost institutional scale is long and painful to read. Most of those countries have also witnessed greater or lesser amounts of Church as well as tacit state protection being offered to those priests involved.

Most of the major details concerning the extent and nature of pedophilia within the Catholic Church in the countries concerned are well-known and don't need to be listed here. Suffice it to say that many thousands of priests have been involved over many years.

Although the Catholic Church worldwide has been shaken to its foundations by the public backlash from the revelations, it was only last week that the Pope finally decided to offer the world the first premises of a Vatican mea culpa, albeit grudgingly and half-heartedly.

And the name of France has been largely and conspicuously absent from the guilty list.

The Catholic faith is by far the most represented in France, with over 60% of the population being baptized as Catholics. This fact alone 'should' have resulted in France being affected by the scandals just like other countries - and even more so than some - given its relatively high numbers of priests. So why hasn't that happened?

The Church of France is one of the oldest Catholic communities in the world, and it went through centuries of ups and downs before the pivotal year of 1905 when the French Law on the Separation of Church and State annulled its special relationship with the state, a relationship which had hitherto given it considerable leverage and protection. This new state doctrine was 'laïcité', which defined then -as it does now - France's strict version of its secular character.

I am a fierce detractor of some of laïcité's practical applications, but it cannot be denied that it is largely responsible for both the French state and the French Church's policies concerning pedophilia within the church, which can only be described as draconian.

The Catholic Church in France has less state protection tacit or otherwise - than it does elsewhere, and this has long been demonstrated by the Church's policy of coming down relatively hard on pedophilia within its ranks compared to the Church elsewhere.

The French Catholic hierarchy was the first in the world in 1998 to issue strict and publicized formal guidelines stating that it would not cover up for pedophiles. It followed up this declaration up with another even more emphatic - declaration in 2002 which condemned pedophilia in the strongest terms and reiterated that offenders would be turned over to the police if they did not do so themselves when unmasked by the Church. The declaration also asked churchgoers, families, Catholic schools, associations and even the government to help it deal with pedophilia, and issued guidelines to help detect signs of abuse in children.

All this happened well before the current scandals affecting whole countries began to surface, and that, along with laïcité, explains the extremely harsh sentences which have been handed down to pedophile priests in France over the last ten years.

Here are some examples of how the France deals with pedophile priests, and they demonstrate that the Church's declarations were not mere words.

Parish priest René Bissey was jailed for 18 years in October 2000 for sexually assaulting 11 boys. Father Jean-Luc Heckner 16 years for the rape of seven boys. Another parish priest, Pierre Dufour, got 15 years in 2006 for sexual abuse against a number of boys. Priests Lefort, Lebras, and Keiffer received 8, 10, and 12 years respectively for similar offences.

There are dozens of similar cases. Although allegations of Diocesal protection surfaced at some of these trials, the fact that the investigations quoted above all began in the 1990's and even earlier shows that France has always penalized pedophile priests when it finds them, and severely. Also, the Church has willingly given evidence in many cases. Other trials are ongoing.

On a wider scale, although the French Catholic press has tried to minimize the worldwide scandal and blame the world's press for blowing things out of proportion, French Church leaders have generally been relatively muted in their comment, refusing to blame the press outright or overly-minimize the seriousness of the situation.

They have been right to adopt that policy, because they are wise enough to know that the French public and authorities would not tolerate that kind of opinion.

There are pedophile priests in France, and some of them have surely never been uncovered because of local Church protection. Some may even manage to remain anonymous for the rest of their lives and escape justice.

But it remains true nevertheless that if the Catholic Church in many other countries had followed the French example earlier by applying the same secular laws to Catholic priest pedophiles as they do to other citizens, the magnitude of the worldwide Catholic Church pedophilia scandal would have been considerably lessened.

Any original material on these pages is copyright 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.