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BRITTANY, France (ChurchMilitant.com) - Victims of clerical sex abuse have accused a French bishop of protecting a predator priest who sexually abused 90 women and adolescent girls at a religious community in the northwest of France.
Hervé Gosselin, the bishop of Angoulême, was in charge of the Foyer de Charité de Tressaint community, which is based at the retreat center in Dinan, Brittany. It was during his tenure that the serial sexual abuse committed by Fr. André-Marie Van der Borght was brought to his attention.
Van der Borght was head of the community where lay women who chose to live a life of celibacy dedicated themselves to evangelization and to the mission of "revitalizing and strengthening Christians in their faith."
"The members of the Foyer share a simple and fraternal life. They put their belongings and abilities in common to make the Foyer a place for nurturing the spiritual renewal of their contemporaries," the community's website states.
Victims report that the "spiritual father" of the community would shower them with kisses on the mouth and engage them sexually by putting his hands on their breasts, on their buttocks, and slipping his hands under the skirt to caress their thighs, Mediapart reported on Thursday.
Members and retreatants, some of whom were minors, also accuse Van der Borght of forcing their heads between his legs during confession and forcing them to reveal sins of masturbation in the confessional.
Bishop Gosselin has denied covering up the sexual crimes perpetrated by his predecessor and insists that while he only had "indirect and vague" reports on his predecessor's behavior, his "priority is to conciliate the victims and serve justice."
But earlier this year, the bishop replied to a letter from one of the complainants, asking her to "measure [her] words and not to draw hasty conclusions." The complainant blasted Gosselin for "not once recognizing my status as a victim."
Gosselin also remained silent on three sexual assaults perpetrated by Jean-Pol Blanchard, a 72-year-old lay celibate member of the community. The abuser was sentenced in November 2022 to a 10-month suspended sentence by the judicial court of Saint-Malo.
Mediapart maintains it has consulted documents that prove that Gosselin's cover-up had been reported to the Bishops' Conference of France (CEF), the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church and the Vatican.
In a letter obtained by Mediapart, the CEF president says he is "very worried about the reports received about the bishop of Angoulême, which are corroborated."
According to Mediapart, the president of the CEF "discussed with Bp. Gosselin the fact that people questioned his way of having listened to or accompanied them. Bp. Gosselin told him that he had not heard specific facts before the complaints were made public."
In addition, the bishop of Angoulême reprimanded two victims of Fr. Van der Borght, as well as two whistleblowers, verbally and in writing, according to the testimonies and documents gathered by Mediapart.
A victim named Gabrielle (a pseudonym) claims that when Gosselin took over as head of the community in 2004, she confided in him about the abuse that his predecessor had committed, but the bishop did not respond.
A second victim, known only as Justine, says she reported in 2010 the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of Van der Borght when she was between the ages of 16 and 26 years old, but Gosselin replied, "Ah, indeed, it is not good," and changed the topic.
The Foyer de Charité de Tressaint community, founded by Fr. Georges Finet and French Catholic mystic Marthe Robin in 1936, has 78 homes on four continents and welcomes more than 50,000 people a year for spiritual retreats.
Members of the Vatican commission investigating the community include semiotic expert Alessandra Pozzo, historian Denis Pelletier, sociologist Philippe Portier and theologian Marie Jo Thiel, revealed Bp. Michel Dubost, the pontifical delegate overseeing the community.
Dubost said that the commission is "completely independent" and "aims to shed light, in an academic way, on how the abuses — spiritual and sexual — were perpetrated." The bishop noted that "the priest had an important role [in the community] that was disproportionate."
Meanwhile, Bp. Georges Colomb, of the diocese of La Rochelle and Saintes, is accused of attempting in 2013 to sodomize a Catholic adult called "Nicolas" while giving him a massage in the priest's apartment at the mission's headquarters in Paris, Church Militant reported Friday.
The 12th French bishop to be accused of sexual abuse in the past year, Colomb was then superior general of the missionary society when the alleged incident occurred. The auxiliary bishop of Strasbourg, Gilles Reithinger, is also being accused of initiating a seminarian into a homosexual relationship.
Last month, the global Focolare Movement was rocked by a series of sex abuse scandals in which the controversial Catholic organization admitted to uncovering at least 66 abusers between 2014 and 2022.
The abusers listed in the report include five priests or religious, 53 lay persons (including 32 who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience) and four minors. Of the abusers, 63 were male and three were female.
An explosive report published at the end of January revealed that celebrity Catholic and founder of the L'Arche community, Jean Vanier, had sexually abused at least 25 women.
Vanier, an influential advocate for celibacy, colluded with his mentor, Fr. Thomas Philippe, to manipulate women with religious vocations, including nuns, into sexual relationships using "incestuous representations of relationships between Jesus and Mary," the report stated.
The 66-page report from March 2023 detailing Jean Vanier's seduction methods identifies the Foyer de Charité de Tressaint as one of the locations where the serial abuser met his victims.
In January, Pope Francis laicized the former prior of the Brothers of St. John, Fr. Benoît-Emmanuel Peltereau-Villeneuve, for sexually abusing several nuns and other adult women.
The community of St. John, which numbers 450 religious (including 260 priests), has been riddled with a history of systemic spiritual and sexual abuse. Their founder, Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe and his brother, Fr. Thomas Philippe, were both serial abusers.
In 2019, the community confessed that 27 other brothers had perpetrated sexual abuse against adults, and six brothers abused minors. Father Peltereau-Villeneuve was one of the abusers. The Vatican has sanctioned 10 brothers, and five cases are pending in Rome.
As of May, clerics in France are being issued electronic identity cards that can be scanned to check if the priest has been charged with sexual abuse or stripped of his clerical status, Bp. Alexandre Joly, spokesperson for the CEF, confirmed.