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Over 300,000 May be Abuse Victims of Catholic Church in France

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Chartres Cathedral, France. The Catholic Church in France is facing a reckoning, as many thousands of French citizens claim they were abused by the clergy over the last 70 years. Credit: Olvr /CC BY-SA 3.0

The Catholic Church in France is facing a reckoning, just like the Church has in other nations in the past several years, as over 300,000 people report being victims of clergy abuse dating back 70 years.

As many as 330,000 French children may have been victims of sex abuse in Catholic churches in France, according to the report filed on Tuesday by an independent commission.

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This figure also includes an estimated 216,000 individuals who had allegedly been abused by priests and other clerics during that time period, according to a report from NBC Connecticut.

The speaking out against clerical abuse in the Catholic Church began in earnest in 2001, when the Archdiocese of Boston faced extraordinarily damaging evidence that its priests and others had abused children for decades, with a string of coverups resulting even when occurrences were reported — which was seldom, due to the reverence for priests and the unwillingness of many authorities to damage the reputation of the Church.

Sex abuse scandals then opened up worldwide as the floodgates opened, leading to abuse claims all over North America and the rest of the world.

France, which was once almost a completely Catholic nation, had until now been spared most of the upheavals caused by the uncovering of decades of abuse.

Catholic Church in France accused of institutional, systemic coverup

According to the report, the figure includes abuses that were allegedly perpetrated by as many as 3,000 priests and others in the hierarchy of the church.

And as Jean-Marc Sauvé, the president of the commission that issued the report, says, the worst of it all is that Catholic authorities covered up the abuse over decades in a “systemic manner.”

The head of the French bishops conference, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort asked forgiveness of all those who  had been wronged in the past, admitting today that “we are appalled” at the conclusions of the report.

“I wish on that day to ask for pardon, pardon to each of you,” he told the victims of the Church in France.

The Bishop’s Conference is meeting together today to discuss the way forward.

The Commission urged the church in France to take meaningful action, saying that there were “faults” made by the hierarchy and a culture of “silence” prevailed regarding abuse claims.

It also called on the nation of France to help in the compensation for abuse victims; this is especially needed regarding crimes which took place so long ago that they are outside the French statute of limitations.

Vast majority of victims were boys

According to the Commission, approximately 80% of the victims were boys.

“The consequences are very serious,” Sauvé charged, adding “About 60% of men and women who were sexually abused encounter major problems in their (emotional) or sexual life.”

The gigantic 2,500-page document created by the Commission detailing the alleged incidents of abuse was welcomed by victims, who stated that it was long overdue.

Olivier Savignac, who serves as the head of the abuse victims association called “Parler et Revivre” (Speak out and Live again), who gave testimony that appeared in the report, told interviewers from the Associated Press that the high number of victims abused by each priest or other individual is particularly “terrifying for French society, for the Catholic Church.”

As have many other victims across the globe, Savignac castigated the Church for habitually viewing abuse as individual anomalies, instead of an established pattern of abuse that was tolerated by the Church hierarchy.

He says he was abused when he was 13 by a priest who was a Catholic vacation camp director in the south of France; this cleric has now also been accused of assaulting several other boys.

“I perceived this priest as someone who was good, a caring person who would not harm me,” Savignac said. “But it was when I found myself on that bed half-naked and he was touching me that I realized something was wrong… And we keep this, it’s like a growing cyst, it’s like gangrene inside the victim’s body and the victim’s psyche.”

The damning report was the result of a 2 1/2-year-long study undertaken by the Commission, whose members listened to the recollections of a number of victims and witnesses.

Report looked back to 1950s; vast majority of crimes from 1950-1970s

They also went back and researched church, court, police and newspaper archives as far back as the 1950s. A total of 6,500 calls were also made to a hotline set up by the Commission as a way of reporting information about sex abuse.

Just as others around the world who are combatting sex abuse in Catholic and other religious institutions have reported, Sauvé experienced the church’s attitude, which he says was common until the beginning of the 2000s, as “a deep, cruel indifference toward victims.”

Of the estimated 3,000 people who allegedly perpetrated the abuse, two-thirds were priests.

“Sometimes church officials did not denounce (sex abuses) and even exposed children to risks by putting them in contact with predators,” Sauvé charged in the interview. “We consider… the church has a debt toward victims.”

Of all the alleged abuses that took place under the purview of the Commission, only 22 instances can still be pursued; these cases have now been forwarded to French prosecutors. Details from the over 40 cases that are beyond the statute of limitations but involve alleged perpetrators who are still alive have now been forwarded to Church officials.

The recommendations put forth by the Commission in hopes that further abuse can be presented include a sweeping revision of Canon Law, the laws that govern the Catholic Church.

In addition, further training of priests and other clergy and the creation and promulgation of policies that formally recognize and compensate sex abuse victims must also be part of the reckoning, according to the Commission.

Its findings come after an extraordinarily difficult year for French Catholics, with the conviction of the now-defrocked priest Bernard Preynat, who finally acknowledged that he had abused no fewer than 75 boys over the course of decades.

He was given a five-year prison sentence.

However, one of the victims of Father Preynat, Francois Devaux, who heads up the victims rights group La Parole Libérée (“The Liberated Word”), told The Associated Press in an interview “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.”

Still, he believes that the Commission’s report just got the tip of the iceberg when it comes to abuse in the French Catholic Church, charging that the number of victims it uncovered was “a minimum” because “Some victims did not dare to speak out or trust the commission.”

The Preynat debacle resulted in last year’s resignation of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the former archbishop of Lyon. He personally was accused of failing to report the abuses to the French authorities after he learned about their existence in the 2010s.

However, France’s highest court ruled that Barbarin himself did not cover up the cases.

The Church in France may be facing the reality on the ground in a different manner than it has in the past, with French archbishops this past Sunday acknowledging in a missive read during Masses all across the country that 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 Bishops’ message read. “The fight against pedophilia concerns all of us… Our support and our prayers will keep going toward all the people who have been abused within the church.”

The reign of Pope Francis was hoped to usher in a new era in the Church, with the Jesuit bringing in new blood and new reforms in the way the Church is run. In May of 2019 a sweeping new regulation making all Catholic priests and nuns around the world report all knowledge of clergy sexual abuse to church authorities.

The clerics were also called upon to report any knowledge they may have had  regarding coverups by their superiors.

Francis has mouthed all the right words regarding the sex abuse crisis in the Church, but his actions often say otherwise. Just this past June, he rejected the resignation of Cardinal Reinhard Marx, one of the most prominent clerics in Germany — and who is also a close adviser to the Pope — after the Church historic mishandling of sex able cases in his country.

At the same time, however, Pope Francis said that reforms are necessary and that each bishop must take responsibility for what he termed the “catastrophe” of the crisis.

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