An investigation into sexual abuse in the French Catholic Church found that approximately 216,000 children have been abused by the clergy since 1950.
The revelations in France are the latest to rock the Roman Catholic Church after a string of sexual abuse scandals around the world, often involving children, over the past 20 years.
The abuse was systemic, said Jean-Marc Sauvé, the head of the commission that wrote the report. Sauvé added during a public presentation online of the report that the church had shown “a deep, utter and even cruel indifference for years”, protecting itself rather than the victims.
The church not only failed to take the necessary steps to prevent abuse, but also failed to report the abuse and sometimes knowingly put children in contact with predators, he said. Public prosecutors had been alerted to some of the cases encountered, said Mr. Sauvé.
Speaking just after Sauvé during the presentation of the report, the Archbishop of Reims and head of the conference of bishops of France, Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, spoke of shame, asked for forgiveness and promised to act.
The commission was created by the Catholic bishops of France in 2018 to shed light on abuses and restore public confidence in the church at a time of shrinking congregations. It operated independently of the church.
Sauvé said the problem persisted. He added that the church had until the 2000s shown indifference to the victims and only started changing its attitude in 2015-16.
The Catholic Church’s teaching on topics such as sexuality, obedience, and the sanctity of the priesthood has helped create blind spots that allowed for sexual abuse by the clergy, Sauvé said, adding that the church needed to reform the way it approached these issues to restore trust with society.
Sauvé said the commission identified around 2,700 victims through a call for testimony, and thousands more were found in the archives.
But a large study by research and polling groups estimated there were around 216,000 victims, and the number could rise to 330,000 including abuse by lay members.
There have been around 2,900 to 3,200 suspected pedophiles in the French church over the past 70 years, Sauvé said.
“You are a shame for our humanity”, François Devaux, who created the association of victims The Liberated Word, told church officials during the public presentation of the report, before Sauvé spoke.
“In this hell there have been abominable mass crimes… but there have been, even worse, betrayals of trust, betrayals of morale, betrayals of children. “
He thanked the commission and said he hoped the report would be a turning point: “You are finally giving victims institutional recognition of the responsibility of the church.