French Catholic Church recognizes stunning pattern of sexual abuse

TIT SMOOTH the number was overwhelming. Between 1950 and 2020, at least 216,000 children were sexually abused in France by the Catholic clergy. Thus, on October 5, a two-year independent investigation commissioned by the church was completed. Jean-Marc Sauvé, who headed it, said he had exposed “the leaden weight of the silence stifling the crimes” committed by 2,900 to 3,200 members of the clergy. If lay attackers involved in church activities were also included, the number of abusers could reach 330,000.

Mr. Sauvé’s introduction to the report is chilling and flawless: “The immediate reaction of the Catholic Church was to protect itself as an institution” and it “showed total, even cruel, indifference, to those who have suffered ”. About 90% of the victims were boys, many of whom were between 10 and 13 years old. He called for “a humble recognition of responsibility on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities for the errors and crimes committed under his auspices”.

As reports of sexual abuse committed elsewhere by Catholic clergy have revealed, the crimes in France involved a sinister web of misplaced trust, manipulated authority, cover-up, silence and shame. The abuse was all over the country: in local parishes, scout groups, catechism classes and within families. Pope Francis expressed “great sadness” for the victims. François Devaux, who was sexually abused at the age of ten and then founded a group of victims, called what they had experienced as simply “hell”.

It was the efforts of survivors like Mr. Devaux that forced the church to face its denials and cover-ups. He and others came forward in 2015 to accuse Bernard Preynat, priest and scout leader, of sexual abuse. Mr Preynat was sentenced last year. In 2019, the accusations led to the resignation of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, convicted of concealing the Preynat affair (conviction overturned on appeal).

France has an unusual connection to Catholicism, due to strict secular rules, known as secularism, designed to maintain state neutrality in religious affairs. Missing is the vast network of Church-linked boarding schools and public institutions that have helped cover up pedophilia in some other countries. Yet, this proved no protection for the victims.

Today, the Catholic Church in France is a hollowed-out version of itself. Numbering 12,000, the priesthood is half of what it was 20 years ago, and half of those who serve it are over 75 years old. Only 49% of French people say they believe in God. Two years ago, 56% said in a poll that they had a bad image of the Catholic Church. This week’s report will consolidate these trends.

The church is not the only French arena in which the denial of sexual abuse has been exposed. Another is politics, where, until #MeToo, sexual violence against women tended to be stifled. Two recent books also reveal how members of Parisian circles on the left bank have deployed the principle of sexual freedom to hide abuse and incest. By exposing the manipulation and cruelty of predators, those brave enough to speak out could in the future help prevent such abuses from going unnoticed for so long.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “The Weight of Silence”

About Guillermo Russell

Guillermo Russell

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