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A priest of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) sentenced to 19 years in prison for the sadistic rape of three women — one he tortured with knitting needles and scissors — was protected by Bp. Bernard Fellay, in violation of French law.
The case of Fr. Christophe Roisnel shocked the conscience of the French nation in 2017, when news broke of his criminal trial for rape of three teachers — one of them a mother — at the Notre-Dame de la Sablonnière academy in Goussonville, near Paris, where he had been director of the school since 2006. While reports of his crimes exploded in French media at the time, his story has had almost no coverage in English-language media.
The sexual assaults took place in 2010, during exorcisms he had convinced the women to undergo, claiming they would help them to overcome the trauma of sex abuse they may have suffered in the past.
According to French Catholic media outlet La Croix,
The victims accused him of having used his psychological influence over them to achieve his ends. His modus operandi: to discuss sexual assaults with them, real or invented, that they suffered in the past, to convince them of the need for "therapy." He then made them relive these traumatic episodes so that, he said, they could overcome them.
His argument was that they must "overcome evil with evil," convincing the women to relive their past sexual trauma in order to bring about "healing." These exorcism sessions included flogging and rape, and in the case of one woman, they included what the court called "torture" and "acts of barbarism": abusing her with an assortment of items, including scissors, knitting needles, broom handles, a toothbrush, paintbrush and horsehair glove, among other things.
One of the women, who used the pseudonym "Eliane," said he forced her to undress in a barn in Manche, in Normandy, raping her with several items, before doing it again later in the school cellar as well as other locations, using increasingly larger and more dangerous objects.
"He said that I had been whipped in the past and that I had to relive these events," she told investigators. "He then hit me all over my body with his shirt."
Another woman, "Diane," who was forced to undergo oral sex and sodomy, and who even broke her arm attempting to flee one of Roisnel's attacks, told another SSPX priest about the abuse. The priest refused to report the crimes to police, claiming the woman was an adult and it was her responsibility to do so.
Roisnel was arrested in 2014 and put on trial, where he admitted he had engaged in sex with the women but claimed it was "consensual." The criminal court handed down a conviction in 2017, with a sentence of 16 years in prison. Roisnel appealed the conviction — which resulted in an increase in his sentence to 19 years, after evidence of his torture was introduced in court.
Roisnel's defense attorney was Jérôme Triomphe, an attorney and devoté of the SSPX, well known in traditionalist French circles, who also represented the Vincent Lambert family, the famous quadriplegic considered France's "Terry Schiavo." Ironically, Lambert's condition could be blamed on SSPX priest Fr. Philippe Peignot, who sexually abused Lambert as a boy (abuse to which Peignot admitted), leading to a downward spiral and a life of drugs and alcohol, ending in the fateful car crash while driving intoxicated that landed Lambert in the hospital, paralyzed.
Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general at the time of Roisnel's assaults, first became aware of the abuse in 2010, when two teachers at the school and one of their friends reported Roisnel's sexual assaults to the SSPX.
In violation of French law, neither Fellay nor the French district superior, Fr. Régis de Cacqueray, reported Roisnel's rapes to police. Instead, they quietly sent him to the Capuchin monastery of Morgon in Beaujolais, 30 miles north of Lyon, for a period of two years' penance. He remained there until March 2013, after which Fellay transferred him to a boys' school in Chateauroux.
This attempt to handle the matter internally, while consistent with the track record of the SSPX, was a direct violation of French law.
According to art. 434-1 of France's criminal code:
For anyone who is aware of a crime whose effects can still be prevented or limited, or whose perpetrators are likely to commit new crimes which could be prevented, failure to inform the judicial or administrative authorities is punishable with three years' imprisonment and a fine of €45,000.
A handful of exceptions are made for spouses, family members, health professionals and social workers, but there are no exceptions for clergy.
Thus, in the act of shielding his priest from the law, Fellay broke the law himself and could have been prosecuted and sentenced to three years in prison and a hefty fine.
By the time Roisnel was caught and convicted, however, the statute of limitations had already expired on Fellay's own illegal behavior, leaving him out of prosecution's reach.
The victims had initially trusted Fellay to handle the case properly, but were scandalized when they discovered the superior general had reinstated the rapist to active ministry at the boys' academy, prompting the victims to report Roisnel's crimes to the authorities. He was indicted by secular authorities in April 2014.
An investigation revealed that Roisnel had also attempted his sexual "therapy" on one of the boys during a summer scout camp, after his two years of "penance" at the Capuchin monastery. The session involved the priest's graphic questioning of the boy using crude words, ending in the boy's nervous breakdown.
Three other victims were also discovered during the secular investigation, forced to undergo the sexual "therapy" sessions by Roisnel.
An SSPX canonical case was also launched against Roisnel, the tribunal finding him guilty of "sexual acts" without penetration or violence. The tribunal came to this conclusion by ignoring the testimony of the victims, including one woman whose arm was broken in her attempt to flee the perpetrator during one of his assaults. What's more, the canonical proceeding was itself a violation of canon law.
Little reported by media, a longstanding arrangement exists between Rome and the SSPX, stretching back to the end of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, whereby the Society agrees to refer accused clergy to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The CDF then delegates authority to the SSPX to try the priest in canonical court, conferring on Bp. Fellay the power to act as a canonical judge on behalf of the Holy See.
This was confirmed by Fellay in a May 2015 talk given in Arcadia, California. Fellay clarified to French media in July 2015 that the arrangement was not recent: "This is not new but has existed for over 10 years."
Fellay was thus bound to follow the Normae de Gravioribus Delictis, whose article 16 states: "Whenever the Ordinary or Hierarch receives a report of a more grave delict, which has at least the semblance of truth, once the preliminary investigation has been completed, he is to communicate the matter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" (Quoties Ordinarius vel Hierarcha notitiam saltem verisimilem habeat de delicto graviore, investigatione praevia peracta, eam significet Congregationi pro Doctrina Fidei").
In violation of Fellay's obligations under canon law, he never reported Roisnel's crimes to the CDF, preferring to treat this as a purely internal matter.
It appears Fellay believes he is above the law, both secular and ecclesiastical.
"This case highlights the mismanagement of sex abuse cases in the SSPX," blasted French daily La Croix in a May 7, 2017 article, two days after the court handed down its sentence against Roisnel.
In a defensive response, SSPX Secretary Fr. Christian Thouvenot told media, "Our own investigation did not reveal the gravity of the facts."
"The victims may have been traumatized and did not dare to admit everything," he clarified — failing to reveal that Roisnel had actually pressured the women to retract their statements.
This was the same excuse Thouvenot offered in the case of pedophile priest Fr. Philippe Peignot, guilty of abusing multiple boys while assigned at an SSPX priory in Brussels, Belgium: "[W]e only became aware of what was meant by 'impure touching' very late; of course, we would have taken strong action if we had known the details" — failing to note that the "details" (Peignot groping and assaulting an 11-year-old boy) had been made known to then-superior general Fr. Franz Schmidberger early on, who not only failed to report the crime to police, but lifted restrictions on Peignot's access to children. Fellay was also guilty of the same.
Asked whether the Society would implement psychological screening of candidates for the priesthood in order to avoid such tragic outcomes in the future, Thouvenot said, "The case is too recent, we have not yet had time to take decisions in this direction."
This is a direct contradiction of Bp. Fellay's own words, however, who said four months earlier in a Jan. 24, 2017 response to Swedish media organization SVT that "candidates to the priesthood are assessed and evaluated with respect to their emotional and psychological balance during their six or seven years of training. Should a candidate show any signs of potential weaknesses, he will not be allowed to become a priest."
Not only are Fellay's statements a direct contradiction of those of the Society's Secretary (who is supposed to speak on behalf of the superior general), they are demonstrably false.
Thouvenot himself admits that they had detected troubling signs in Roisnel from early on: "We spent six years together. There was certainly in him a breeding ground favorable to psychological imbalance, but nobody really detected it."
This calls into question either Thouvenot's honesty about what they actually detected in Roisnel — or the SSPX's spectacular failure to spot a violent, twisted pervert of the worst kind in their own ranks, who raped his victim with scissors, knitting needles and a broom handle. Either way, the response hardly evokes confidence in Society leadership.
Fellay's statements are perhaps most notoriously disproven in the case of Fr. Frédéric Abbet, a convicted pedophile, who came to the SSPX seminary with a previous incident of sexual misconduct when he was 15, and was later disciplined in seminary for having an "amitié particulière" — a particular friendship, i.e., an unhealthy emotional/romantic attachment to a fellow seminarian. Yet he was allowed to go on to become a priest — contrary to what Fellay claims would've happen — abusing multiple boys as a result and eventually convicted and sentenced to prison.
One is led to ask: Who is telling the truth, and who is lying? And in light of the SSPX's stunning failures with regard to Roisnel and a number of other abuser priests, how can SSPX devotés continue to have any confidence in the Society's ability to screen its candidates and ordain men worthy of their high calling?
But as shown in a number of cases, Fellay's decision to handle the Roisnel case internally, sending the abuser off to do prayer and penance for a brief time before letting him loose on society, is the SSPX's typical modus operandi — the same modus operandi of so many bishops in the Church exposed after the Boston 2002 sex abuse scandal, who would send pederasts and rapists away for brief stints in rehab before reinstating them at new assignments, where they often went on to abuse again.
Fellay is no different, and apparently has never learned the lessons of the 2002 sex abuse crisis in America — a crisis that has cost the U.S. Church more than $4 billion in abuse payouts and countless lives devastated and souls lost. While the SSPX has had to pay for attorneys' fees and legal bills in a number of sex abuse cases, it remains unknown how much the Society's own abuse scandals have cost them — and more significantly, how many lives they've devastated and souls they've lost by SSPX leadership's malfeasance.