French Report Casts New Light on Sexual Abuse in Catholic Church

PARIS — An independent commission investigating sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in France since the 1950s said on Tuesday that the abuse was far more pervasive and systemic than previously known, laying out in detail how victims had been repeatedly silenced and how church authorities had failed to report or discipline abusive clergy.

The commission’s highly awaited, 2,500-page report, meticulously compiled over the past three years by independent experts at the request of the Catholic Church in France, was the most extensive account to date of the scope of sexual abuse by clergy in the country, especially against children and vulnerable people.

Since 1950, about 216,000 minors have been abused by clergy members in France and there have been at the very least 2,900 to 3,200 perpetrators of sexual abuse among clergy members, according to an estimate by the commission that was based on a demographic and archival analysis.

Jean-Marc Sauvé, the president of the commission, said that those numbers, while estimates, where “damning” and reflected a “systemic” failing by the church.

“The church failed to see or hear, failed to pick up on the weak signals, failed to take the rigorous measures that were necessary,” Mr. Sauvé said at a news conference in Paris on Tuesday. For years, he said, the church showed a “deep, total and even cruel indifference toward victims.”

In 2018, faced with growing criticism of the church’s handling of sexual abuse scandals, top Roman Catholic authorities in France — the Bishop’s Conference of France and the national congregations conference — asked Mr. Sauvé, a well-respected, high-ranking civil servant, to lead a newly created investigative commission, called the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church.

Victims of abuse by clergy members, as well as experts in the matter, welcomed the report, but said it was too early to tell if the church would act on the commission’s recommendations.

The report followed similar efforts in recent years to disclose or document sexual abuse allegations against Roman Catholic clergy members in Australia, Germany, Ireland, Poland, the United States and other countries as the church continues to grapple with the devastation wrought by sexual abuse scandals over the last quarter-century.

“You are a disgrace for our humanity,” François Devaux, co-founder of a victims association, said at the news conference on Tuesday, directly addressing the many Catholic officials in the auditorium.

Mr. Devaux founded La Parole Libérée, 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 and who was convicted in a high-profile case last year.

“You must pay for all of these crimes,” Mr. Devaux said, emphasizing each word.

Jean-Marc Sauvé chaired the independent commission.Credit…Joel Saget/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Sauvé selected 21 experts, including sociologists, historians, jurists, psychologists and theologians, who dug through church, state and news archives, held over 250 hearings with witnesses and experts, and worked with demographic, polling and research institutes.

Crucially, they worked in close tandem with sexual abuse victims. Nearly 6,500 people, victims or those close to them, submitted oral or written testimony to the commission.

Many victims praised the commission for its thoroughness and hailed the report as a much-needed corrective after years of denial or minimizing from the church.

“Victims were worried that it might tone things down,” Mr. Devaux said of the report. Instead, he said in an interview, “they did not skip a single question.”

“Not only did they give a quantitative and qualitative account of the scope of sexual violence, they tried to understand where it came from — the institutional mechanisms,” he added.

There has been a growing reckoning with sexual abuse in the church in France after a series of high-profile scandals, especially the Preynat affair, which embroiled a cardinal in Lyon who was accused of failing to report the abuse.

The case became a symbol of the church’s failings and its secretive approach to dealing with abuse cases, but it also signaled a shift in the willingness of victims to speak out and challenge church authorities.

“Before that, things were handled with shame,” said Isabelle de Gaulmyn, a top editor at La Croix, France’s leading Catholic newspaper, who 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,’” she added, referring to Mr. Preynat’s accusers.

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