An explosive report on sexual abuse has left France “stunned”. Yet most French Catholics still believe there is hope for reform

The French church is beginning to experience a degree of healing weeks after the publication of an investigation into seven decades of clergy child abuse. This is the assessment of Patrick Goujon, SJ, professor at the Center Sèvres (a Jesuit pre-college school in Paris) and editor of the Journal Recherches de Sciences Religieuse.

Himself a victim of sexual assault by a priest, Father Goujon was active with the conference of major superiors of France to disseminate the conclusions of the 2,500-page report, published in October after more than two years of research and investigations by the Independent Commission on Sexual Violence. Abuse in the Church. According to the report, up to 330,000 children have been abused by priests, religious and laity in ecclesiastical institutions in France since the 1950s.

A church in denial

The report landed on French Catholics like a bombshell, Father Goujon said. The French bishops had never considered sexual abuse a serious problem.

“We have been in denial for 20 years,” Father Goujon said. “The bishops said that [that kind of abuse] could never happen here.

The report landed on French Catholics like a bombshell. The French bishops had never considered sexual abuse a serious problem.

“The country was flabbergasted,” said Father Goujon. But following the report, the French media refrained from criticizing the church. He believes that because the bishops themselves had called for the inquiry, the Catholic public saw the commission’s findings and recommendations “as an opportunity for reform.”

According to Father Goujon, an October 2021 survey by the French Catholic newspaper La Croix showed that 85% of Catholics were saddened by revelations of abuse, but they also believed the church would respond seriously to the issue.

“They were saying, ‘We believe our church is capable of renewal,'” he said.

But even as most French Catholics found reason to be optimistic, eight members of the Catholic Academy of France, a lay-led association of leading French intellectuals and scholars, spoke out against the report, criticizing its methodology and challenging its estimate of the number of victims. as “disproportionate”. They described the report as an inaccurate account of systemic abuse in the church that would lay “the foundation for proposals to bring down the institutional church.”

The group also questioned the independence of the church-sponsored commission that conducted the investigation, disagreeing that an entity outside the church should be empowered to suggest how the church might reform. The survey concluded with 45 recommendations, including suggestions for changes in priestly formation.

The bishops respond

Several members of the 250-member academy resigned due to their colleagues’ attempt to undermine the report’s findings, including the head of the French episcopal conference, Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, and Jean-Marc Sauve, head of the commission that wrote the report. The French bishops also resisted criticism of the report in the academy, saying they had accepted its findings, including the statement that systemic institutional failure had contributed to the crisis.

“We have been in denial for 20 years. The bishops said that [that kind of abuse] could never happen” in France.

The bishops’ defense of the report was another powerful moment of healing, Father Goujon said.

This was an unlikely outcome given the apparent reluctance of French bishops in the recent past to confront the problem of historical abuse by priests. In 2000, bishops wrote a letter read at Sunday Masses across France that explained how allegations of abuse were to be handled, Father Goujon recalled. It was the last collective public action by bishops on the issue in nearly two decades, even as in countries like the United States, Ireland, Germany and Australia, the Church began to confront the frontal crisis.

But a scandal erupted in Lyon in 2015 when the case of former Reverend Bernard Preynat became known. Mr. Preynat, who was secularized, was put in contact with 85 victims. He admitted to abusing children left in his care for decades. His bishop, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, became aware of the abuses in the early 2010s. He dismissed Mr Preynat from the ministry in 2014 but never informed civil authorities of the allegations against him. Mr. Preynat was convicted by a court in Lyon in 2020.

Cardinal Barbarin was tried for covering up the abuse but was acquitted. He then resigned.

“We’ll never know what happened, whether he covered up or not,” Father Goujon said.

The case revealed that serial sexual abuse and a cover-up did indeed occur in France and led Catholics to call for further investigation. After sustained media pressure from victims’ associations, the bishops and the French Conference of Major Superiors of Religious Orders agreed to jointly fund an independent commission to investigate historical abuse cases. This process started in 2019.

Two years later, when the commission’s report left the country in shock, Bishop Moulins-Beaufort issued a public apology. But French Catholics wanted more. According to Father Goujon, other bishops disappointed the faithful with initial public statements that suggested they did not understand how to make sense of the report and take responsibility for its findings.

A scandal erupted in Lyon in 2015 when the case of former Reverend Bernard Preynat became known. Mr. Preynat, secularized, was put in contact with 85 victims.

But over the following weeks, the French bishops became more united on the way forward for the Church.

At the beginning of November, the bishops meet in Lourdes. At the end of this conference, they addressed the country, kneeling together in sign of penance. The bishops also unveiled a statue of a crying child and a victim of clergy abuse spoke. They promised a serious program of reform and renewal in the future.

“We did it first and foremost because we felt God’s gaze on us, because we felt the disgust and fear rising within us realizing what so many people had gone through and were going through in terms of suffering, so that they had the right to receive the light, the consolation, the hope of God,” Bishop Moulins-Beaufort said.

The Lourdes declaration was deeply significant, according to Father Goujon, because “the first major step was a real recognition of the responsibility of the Church” and in Lourdes the bishops as a body publicly and deliberately took responsibility for the systemic abuses in the Church.

The church in France still has work to do, from establishing compensation and reconciliation with survivors of abuse to delivering on its promised renewal agenda. Many victims are believed to have yet to come forward.

To advance

But the bishops have taken concrete steps towards change. Father Goujon indicated that some dioceses have already begun to liquidate assets to create reserves to compensate victims. On January 25, the council responsible for managing a compensation fund for victims announced that it had already collected 20 million euros from properties sold by dioceses, individual donations from bishops and contributions from dioceses. A first amount of five million euros will be set aside for compensation claims studied by the independent commission that the bishops created last year.

Working with an independent commission has also demonstrated that working with outside organizations is beneficial to the church.

“It’s a first step. The church followed through on its commitment,” compensation fund president Gilles Vermot-Desroches told French media.

In Lourdes, the bishops have also formed working groups to develop a more rigorous process for dealing with abuse. They will report in January, according to Father Goujon. An ongoing assessment of how well dioceses have followed the protocols put in place by the church in France in 2000 has also begun.

The church also reached a special agreement with the country’s civil prosecutor. All allegations of abuse will be sent to civil authorities for investigation, as one of the findings of the report was that smaller dioceses lack the resources to effectively investigate allegations of abuse, according to Father Goujon.

Working with an independent commission has also demonstrated that working with outside organizations is beneficial to the church. “He stressed that in its ordinary procedures the church must be open to those who are not part of it, which is something new,” Father Goujon said. His experience with the abuse crisis, he said, showed the church in France “how to fight other abuses”.

In addition to addressing sexual abuse, the report shed light on ways to improve church governance and prevent other offenses committed by clerics such as spiritual abuse by religious superiors or authoritarian tendencies among pastors and bishops.

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