First in French History: Clerical Sex Abuse Commission Convenes

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by David Nussman  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  June 3, 2019   

Independent commission set up by Church leaders begins work of investigating abuse, cover-up allegations

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PARIS (ChurchMilitant.com) - An independent commission looking into Catholic clerical sex abuse is getting to work in France.

France's bishops decided to create the commission last November following months ridden by abuse scandals in the Church around the world. The 22-person panel includes attorneys, sociologists, doctors and historians.

The committee is charged with investigating clerical abuse allegations and alleged cover-ups dating from the 1950s. It will also analyze and critique the way France's bishops have responded to the abuse crisis in the past 20 years and propose new measures.

The president of the commission, Jean-Marc Sauve, commented, "For the first time in France, an independent institution is going to launch, over the course of a year, an appeal for witness statements about sexual abuse."

He added, "It is an important action to be able to give victims psychological or legal help."


The abuse commission will use a hotline, as well as a special email address, to receive information and tips related to allegations of sex abuse.

Sauve said that he expects thousands of contacts in the hotline and the email. At a later stage in the process, the committee will arrange for face-to-face interviews with priestly sex abuse victims.

The commission will present its findings to France's bishops by the end of 2020, Sauve noted.

For the first time in France, an independent institution is going to launch, over the course of a year, an appeal for witness statements about sexual abuse.

When the independent commission was first announced in November, Abp. Georges Pontier, the president of France's bishops' conference, told the press, "The bishops of France decided to set up an independent commission to throw light on the sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church since 1950, to understand the reasons that favored the way in which these cases were handled, and to make recommendations."

In February, France's bishops decided they would grant financial compensation to clerical sex abuse victims who cannot go to court due to the statute of limitations.

French prelate Cdl. Philippe Barbarin received a six-month prison sentence in March on charges that he failed to report sexual abuse allegations to law enforcement. Cardinal Barbarin, who headed the archdiocese of Lyon, France, was convicted of failing to act on allegations against Fr. Bernard Preynat, accused of homosexually assaulting multiple Scout members in the 1980s.

Not long after his conviction, Cdl. Barbarin offered his resignation to the Vatican, although Pope Francis rejected it. 

Cardinal Barbarin learned in 2007 of allegations that Fr. Preynat had sexually assaulted multiple males. But he did not act on these allegations, apparently because Fr. Preynat swore to him in 1991 that he had never sexually assaulted anyone.

Father Preynat remained in ministry until even more homosexual abuse allegations came to light in 2015.

In 2015, Barbarin contacted then-Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer — then secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) — for advice on how to handle the Preynat situation. Ladaria advised Cdl. Barbarin to punish Preynat while also "avoiding public scandal."

Last September, a French court issued a summons to Ladaria related to his 2015 communication with Barbarin. But the Vatican challenged the summons, invoking sovereign immunity. In other words, the Vatican claimed that Ladaria's communication with Barbarin pertained to internal matters in Vatican City, which is officially its own nation, thus placing the communication outside the French court's jurisdiction.

Catholicism in France was in the news during Holy Week this year after Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire. The massive wooden roof of the historic church burned down in a widely televised disaster.

Now, there is discussion of how to rebuild Notre Dame's roof. Some architects have made outlandish proposals like a massive rooftop swimming pool or an Islamic minaret. But the French Senate recently adopted legislation ordering that the fire-damaged cathedral be returned to its previous state.

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