Tens of thousands of people, and possibly more, are believed to have been victims of child sex abuse within France’s Catholic Church over the past seven decades, according to a major report due to be published Tuesday.
The 2,500-page document prepared by an independent commission comes as the Catholic Church in France, like in other countries, seeks to reckon with shameful secrets that were long covered up.
The commission president, Jean-Marc Sauve, said in the French press that an estimated 3,000 child abusers — two-thirds of them priests — have worked in the church over the past 70 years.
Olivier Savignac, head of victims’ association “Parler et Revivre” (Speakout and Live again), who contributed to the probe, told The Associated Press that the estimated number of victims in the report reaches 216,000.
“That is devastating, because the ratio between 216,000 and 3,000, it’s one aggressor for 70 victims. That is terrifying for the French society, for the Catholic Church,” he said.
The AP was not able to read the report ahead of its presentation and could not confirm the figure.
The commission worked for 2 1/2 years, listening to victims and witnesses and studying church, court, police and press archives starting from the 1950s. A hotline launched at the beginning of the probe received 6,500 calls from alleged victims or people who said they knew a victim.
Sauvé said 22 alleged crimes that can still be pursued have been forwarded to prosecutors. More than 40 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 45 recommendations about how to prevent abuse. These included training priests and other clerics, revising the Canon Law (the legal code the Vatican uses to govern the church) and fostering policies to recognize and compensate victims, Sauvé said.
The report comes after a scandal surrounding now-defrocked priest Bernard Preynat rocked the French Catholic Church. Last year, Preynat was convicted of sexually abusing minors and given a five-year prison sentence. He acknowledged abusing more than 75 boys for decades.
One of Preynat’s victims, Francois Devaux, head of the victims’ group La Parole Libérée (“The Liberated Word”), told The Associated Press that “with this report, the French church for the first time is going to the root of this systemic problem. The deviant institution must reform itself.”
He said the number of victims the report was expected to list is “a minimum.”
“Some victims did not dare to speak out or trust the commission,” he said, expressing concerns that the church in France still “hasn’t understood” and has sought to minimize its responsibilities.
The church must not only acknowledge events but also compensate victims, Devaux said. “It is indispensable that the church redresses the harm caused by all these crimes, and (financial) compensation is the first step.”
The Preynat case led to the resignation last year of the former archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who has been accused of failing to report the abuses to civil authorities when he learned about them in the 2010s. France’s highest court ruled earlier this year that Barbarin did not cover up the case.
French archbishops, in a message to parishioners read during Sunday Mass across the country, said the publication of the report is “a test of truth and a tough and serious moment.”
“We will receive and study these conclusions to adapt our actions,” the message said. “The fight against pedophilia concerns all of us … Our support and our prayers will keep going towards all the people who have been abused within the church.”
Pope Francis issued in May 2019 a groundbreaking new church law requiring all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities.
In June, Francis swiftly rejected an offer from Cardinal Reinhard Marx, one of Germany’s most prominent clerics and a close papal adviser, to resign as archbishop of Munich and Freising over the church’s mishandling of abuse cases. But he said a process of reform was necessary and every bishop must take responsibility for the “catastrophe” of the crisis.