A major investigation published on 5th October, Tuesday, found that over 200,000 children were sexually abused by Clergy members in the Roman Catholic Church in France over the past seventy years. This report that represents the country’s first major accounting of the worldwide phenomenon concluded the problem was far more pervasive than previously known.
The above-mentioned figure includes abuses committed by some three thousand priests and other people involved in the church. The report includes the wrongdoing that Catholic authorities covered up over decades in a “systemic manner,” according to the president of the commission that issued the report, Jean-Marc Sauvé.
According to The New York Times, the long-awaited report by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church is 2500-pages long. The extensive report laid out in detail how the church hierarchy had repeatedly silenced the victims and failed to report or discipline the clergy members involved.
“The church failed to see or hear, failed to pick up on the weak signals, failed to take the rigorous measures that were necessary,” Jean-Marc Sauvé, said at a news conference in Paris on Tuesday. For years, the church showed a “deep, total and even cruel indifference toward victims,” by protecting itself rather than the victims of what was systemic abuse, Sauvé, the commission president added.
The head of the French bishops’ conference asked for forgiveness from the victims, about 80% of whom were boys, many of them aged between ten and thirteen according to the report.
When did the investigation begin?
The investigative commission was set up at the end of 2018 at the request of the Catholic Church in France. This came in response to criticism of its handling of abuse cases as there has been a growing reckoning with sexual abuse in the church in France after a series of high-profile scandals.
To shed light on abuses and restore public confidence in the church at a time of dwindling congregations, the Catholic Bishops established the commission that has worked independently from the church.
The report has been meticulously compiled over the past three years by independent experts. According to The New York Times, this investigation’s findings were the most extensive account to date of the scope of sexual abuse by clergy in the country, especially of children and other vulnerable people.
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The investigation in France followed efforts in recent years to disclose or document similar allegations against Roman Catholic clergy members in other countries, reports The New York Times.
These included churches in Australia, Germany, Ireland, Poland, the United States, and other countries as the church continues to grapple with the devastation wrought by decades of sexual abuse scandals. The French church has seen congregations shrink as well its influence wane in recent decades.
The independent commission that published the report urged the church to take strong action, denouncing “faults” and “silence”, reported Associated Press. They called on the Catholic Church to help compensate the victims “which, despite not being sufficient (to address the trauma from sexual abuse), is nonetheless indispensable as it completes the recognition process.”
This includes especially the cases that are too old to prosecute via the courts.
“The consequences are very serious,” Sauvé said, as per NPR. “About 60% of men and women who were sexually abused encounter major problems in their emotional or sexual life.”
“We consider the church has a debt towards victims,” he added.
The response to the report
Pope Francis met with French bishops in recent days and took note of the report, said Matteo Bruni, a Vatican spokesman, in a statement. The Pope expressed gratitude towards the victims for having the courage to come forward.
“First of all his thoughts go to the victims, with great sorrow, for their wounds,” a Vatican statement said, reported Reuters. “(His thoughts go to) the Church of France, so that, in the awareness of this terrible reality … it may embark on a path of redemption.”
Eric de Moulins-Beaufort is the head of the French conference of bishops. Moulins-Beaufort said the church was shamed and calling the report a “bombshell”, he asked for forgiveness and promised to act.
More on the report
About 216,000 minors, mostly boys aged between ten to thirteen, have been abused by clergy members in France since 1950, according to an estimate by the commission. The figure reached 330,000 after including perpetrators who were laypeople.
This latter number also included perpetrators who worked for the church or were affiliated with it, such as Boy Scout organizers or Catholic school staff. The estimate is a projection based on a general population survey, archival analysis, and other sources, reported Aurelien Breeden for The New York Times.
“The Catholic Church is thus, with the exception of family and friendship circles, the environment in which the prevalence of sexual violence is by far the highest,” the report said.
The commission also estimated that there had been at least 2,900 perpetrators of sexual abuse among clergy members over the past 70 years — likely an underestimate, Mr. Sauvé said. He said the commission itself had identified around 2,700 victims through a call for testimony. Furthermore, thousands more had been found in archives.
According to Sauvé, the problem was still there, and that the church had until the 2000s shown complete indifference to victims. He added that it only started to really change its attitude in 2015-2016.
The Catholic Church’s teaching on subjects such as sexuality, obedience, and the sanctity of the priesthood helped create blind spots, Suave said. This allowed sexual abuse by clergy to happen, adding that the church needed to reform the way it approached those issues to rebuild trust with society.
The church must take responsibility for what happened, the commission said. They must ensure reports of abuse were transmitted to judicial authorities. The height of the abuse was 1950-1970. The commission said in its report, that there was an apparent resurgence in cases in the early 1990s.
Many cases are covered by the statute of limitations (meaning that they have not or will not be prosecuted) because the accused have died. Another reason is that the statute of limitations for the allegations has expired since over half of the abuse occurred between 1950 and 1970 (as mentioned above), the commission estimated. However, state prosecutors have been alerted of more recent cases.
The commission stressed that the church should provide compensation to victims no matter when an offense was committed on a case-by-case basis with funds recouped directly from the perpetrators and church assets. It added a list of recommendations that included systematically checking the criminal record of any person assigned by the Church to be in regular contact with children or vulnerable people, and providing priests with adequate training.
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Victims and experts welcomed the report but they were particularly outraged this year when France’s bishops suggested giving them a fixed “contribution” paid for by donations of the faithful. They also noted that it was unclear how the church would act on the commission’s recommendations.
The commission’s report encouraged French bishops to consider the ordination of married men. This is to give “a far greater presence of laypersons in general, and women in particular” in the church’s deciding bodies furthermore the report also said that “the secrecy around confession was not incompatible with the legal obligation for priests to report sexual abuse” as per The New York Times.
The report – “a turning point in our history.”
Francois Devaux, head of the victims’ group La Parole Libérée (The Liberated Word), said it was “a turning point in our history”. He denounced the cover-ups that permitted “mass crimes for decades”. He called on the church for compensation, saying, “But even worse, there was a betrayal: betrayal of trust, betrayal of morality, betrayal of children, betrayal of innocence.”
“You are a disgrace to humanity,” Devaux, who founded an association of victims of Bernard Preynat, a former priest who was accused of sexually assaulting dozens of Boy Scouts from the 1970s to the 1990s, said at a news conference, addressing the Catholic officials in the auditorium. Preynat was convicted last year.
“You must pay for all of these crimes,” Mr. Devaux said, emphasizing each word.
“The French findings come a year after Britain said the Catholic Church had received more than 900 complaints involving over 3,000 instances of child sex abuse in England and Wales between 1970 and 2015, and that there had been more than 100 reported allegations a year since 2016” reported Tangi Salaün and Ingrid Melander for Reuters.
In June, the Pope said the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis was a worldwide “catastrophe” and that a process of reform was necessary.
According to NPR, Pope Francis also swiftly rejected an offer from Cardinal Reinhard Marx, to resign as archbishop of Munich and Freising over the church’s mishandling of abuse cases. Marx is one of Germany’s most prominent clerics and a close papal adviser.
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The Pope issued in May 2019 a groundbreaking new church law. This law required all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities. Furthermore, this year he issued the most extensive revision to Catholic Church law in four decades, insisting that bishops take action against clerics who abuse minors and vulnerable adults, as per Reuters.
According to Reuters, critics accuse him of responding too slowly to the sex abuse scandals. They have also accused him of failing to empathize with victims and of blindly believing the word of his fellow clergy.
Mr. Sauvé, a well-respected former top magistrate, selected twenty-one experts, who dug through the church, state, and news archives and the estimates of the findings are based on research led by France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research into sexual abuse of children in the French population, as per Associated Press. He also included sociologists, historians, jurists, psychologists, and theologians.
Sauvé held over 250 hearings with witnesses as well as experts. He also worked with demographic, polling, and research institutes, and nearly 6,500 people, victims or those close to them, submitted oral or written testimony, reports the New York Times.
Sauvé said twenty-two alleged crimes that can be pursued have been forwarded to prosecutors, while over forty cases that are too old to be prosecuted but involve alleged perpetrators who are still alive have been forwarded to church officials.
The commission issued forty-five recommendations about how to prevent abuse.
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“Victims were worried that it might tone things down,” Mr. Devaux said of the report. But he said, “not only did they give a quantitative and qualitative account of the scope of sexual violence, but they also tried to understand where it came from — the institutional mechanisms.”
Among the sexual assault scandals that drew attention to the problem, one of them was the Preynat affair. This case which embroiled a cardinal who was accused of failing to report abuse stood out and became a symbol of the church’s failings, its secretive approach to dealing with abuse. It signaled a shift in the willingness of victims to challenge church authorities.
“Before that, things were handled with shame,” said Isabelle de Gaulmyn. Isabelle is a top editor at La Croix, France’s leading Catholic newspaper. She wrote a book about the Preynat case. “And they said, ‘No, we were abused, we are going to hold people accountable, and we are going to do so openly,’” Gaulmyn added, referring to Mr. Preynat’s accusers.
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The Bishop’s Conference acknowledged in a letter in March that cases of sexual abuse committed by clergy members were “undeniable”. They sought to restore confidence in the church announcing a series of measures to tackle the issue and added that too often church authorities had turned a blind eye.
However, the commission said in its report that the pace of change had been too slow. According to the commission, some measures had been unevenly applied across dioceses and institutions.
Olivier Savignac, was thirteen when he was sexually abused by a priest in 1993. Savignac who founded Parler et Revivre, an association for abuse victims, said the church was still ensconced in a culture of silence, “because there are strong questions of loyalty — loyalty to the priest, and loyalty to the bishop.”
“What’s at stake in the long term is to truly establish a culture of speaking out, of prevention,” he added.
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