PARIS (ChurchMilitant.com) - The Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) was the only community that refused to cooperate in a major sex abuse probe in France, denying requests to open its clergy archives. The Society's actions can be contrasted with those of the vast majority of French dioceses, casting further doubt on the Society's alleged commitment to transparency and accountability.
At the behest of the bishops of France, a task force to investigate sex abuse was launched in 2019, called the Independent Commission on Sex Abuse in the Church (CIASE). Jean-Marc Sauvé, former vice president of the Council of State, was chosen to lead the commission. While the bishops funded the initiative, the commission itself was independent.
Over the course of two years, the commission interviewed hundreds of witnesses and examined numerous dioceses in France, along with various religious institutions and communities. In October 2021, it published a 2,500-page report covering abuse spanning 70 years — from 1950–2020 — estimating more than 300,000 victims.
Out of the 99 dioceses and numerous Catholic communities in France surveyed, only one small diocese and one community — the SSPX — refused to cooperate.
"[D]uring the work of the CIASE, a diocese (that of Bayonne) and a congregation (the Society of St. Pius X ...) refused to open their archives to historians commissioned by the commission," reported French investigative outfit Médiapart.
When asked to comment on its refusal, French District Superior Fr. Benôit de Jorna criticized the commission.
"It was not a legitimate request," he told French journal La Vie, failing to explain why the request for clergy archives lacked legitimacy.
De Jorna, who was ordained by Abp. Marcel Lefebvre and once led the SSPX seminary in Écône, Switzerland, also rejected the idea of independent oversight for the Society.
"The Church being a perfect society, it has all the means to solve its own problems," de Jorna insisted. "However, with the Sauvé report, it appealed to an authority external to it."
"The priest is another Christ, deference to him is just," he added.
That deference and refusal to submit to independent oversight, however, have led to well-documented instances of clerical sex abuse and cover-up in the Society.
While touting its commitment to "transparency," the Society's refusal to work with the French sex abuse commission, along with its refusal to publish a list of credibly accused clergy (unlike most dioceses and religious communities around the world), is evidence that transparency and accountability are not a priority.
Church Militant has extensively reported on the SSPX's track record of failing to report known predators to police, instead transferring them to new assignments, where they often go on to abuse again. When caught, the Society issues statements minimizing the offenses and disclaiming responsibility. Examples abound.
In 2006, Bp. Bernard Fellay, superior general for 24 years, transferred Fr. Frederic Abbet — an accused pedophile — to a Belgian SSPX chapel that shared the same roof as a boys dorm. Although an SSPX canonical court had imposed a 10-year ban on Abbet from being around children, Fellay lifted the ban after only two months.
As a result of Fellay's actions, Abbet went on to abuse numerous boys again, one as young as six. He would later be convicted by a Belgian court for his sex crimes against children.
The actions of SSPX leadership in protecting Abbet were so egregious that the panel of judges accused the Society of promoting "criminogenic" behavior (a term meaning repeated criminality).
Contrary to the SSPX's claim that it "fully cooperated with authorities" in the case, its track record was one of stonewalling and putting up "roadblocks" during trial. From a joint statement by three victims' rights groups:
When the families of the Belgian victims learned from other sources of [Fr. Abbet's] onerous past, the SSPX set up roadblocks in various ways: by first refusing to put them in contact with the Swiss victim or even to give them his identity, then requiring them to go through a lawyer specially hired for this purpose — a lawyer of a very particular kind: a parishioner of the Geneva chapel of the SSPX, he behaved more like a devoté of Bp. Fellay than a lawyer, treating the Belgian families with extreme contempt and systematically obstructing their contact with the Swiss victim. We do not see cooperation with justice there.
The statement continues, "It is therefore only by carefully suppressing the opinions of four magistrates, the King's prosecutor and three judges that the Society of St. Pius X manages to give itself the appearance of having taken proper action."
The case even led one SSPX priest to write a letter to Fellay pleading with him to stop covering up Abbet's crimes.
"Look at all the scandals that have shaken the Church a little everywhere in the world for some years," the priest wrote. "Bishops have been condemned for covering up these horrors. Spare the Society from suffering this shame."
That priest has since left the Society after being discouraged by its continued mishandling of sex abuse.
Weeks after Church Militant's Spotlight exposing this story, Abbet was arrested in Switzerland, where he had escaped justice, living only minutes from the SSPX seminary in Écône. He is now in prison serving out his sentence.
In the SSPX mission in Gabon, Africa, after Fr. Damien Carlile was accused of abusing Gabonese boys, Fellay transferred Carlile to New Zealand — where he went on to abuse again. Among his victims was a 10-year-old boy, who continues to suffer from the trauma to this day. His family has taken the matter to civil authorities and is fighting for justice.
The bishop also kept Fr. Patrick Groche, one of the Society's most senior priests and a close collaborator of Lefebvre, in ministry for many years after allegations that he also abused boys in Gabon. Fellay simply transferred Groche to another continent, as was his well-documented practice with predator priests.
Claude, whose story was first told in Church Militant's Spotlight: SSPX—Black Trads Matter, was first abused when he was 16, in 1986, almost immediately after Groche arrived to establish the Gabon mission.
According to one former SSPX priest who spoke with Church Militant, Groche's penchant for young boys was an open secret among priests as far back as the 2000s.
Groche served in leadership at the Écône seminary at the same time that de Jorna was rector; thus both men are well known to each other.
It was not until 2019, however, that SSPX leadership stripped Groche of priestly ministry, after Claude reported on — and Groche admitted to — his abuse.
Fellay also protected Fr. Christophe Roisnel, convicted in 2017 of raping and torturing three female teachers at the Notre-Dame de la Sablonnière academy in Goussonville, near Paris, where Roisnel had been director of the school since 2006.
When the victims first privately reported the abuse to the SSPX in 2011, its own canonical court found Roisnel guilty. Instead of handing him over to law enforcement, as required by French law, Fellay hid him away in the Capuchin monastery of Morgon in Beaujolais, 30 miles north of Lyon, for two years.
He remained there until March 2013, when Fellay transferred him to a boys' school in Chateauroux.
The victims had initially trusted Fellay to handle the case properly, but were scandalized to learn the bishop had reinstated Roisnel to ministry at the academy. It was then the victims went to police. Roisnel was tried and convicted, and is currently serving out a 19-year prison sentence.
In the case of Fr. Philippe Peignot, a pedophile who counts numerous boys as his victims (including France's famous paraplegic, Vincent Lambert), two superiors general — Fr. Franz Schmidberger and Bp. Fellay — gave him repeated access to children over the course of decades, in spite of knowing about his abuse as early as 1990.
It was only in 2013, when the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith intervened, that Fellay was ordered to begin a canonical trial against Peignot.
In the middle of that trial, Peignot defected from the SSPX to join Bp. Richard Williamson's SSPX Resistance. It is believed, though not confirmed, that Peignot is living and working as a priest in Brazil.
These are only a handful of examples of SSPX malfeasance; there are many more. To this day, Fellay has never given a public account for his actions. Victims' families accuse him of lying, tearfully promising to their faces that their abusers would face justice, but acting to protect priests behind their backs.
When Church Militant first exposed these cases, with direct testimony from victims, SSPX attendees and law enforcement, along with correspondence, audiotapes, court documents and other documentation, Society leadership — rather than offering a substantive response — dismissed the reports as "a media campaign" involving stories taken from "newspapers or blogs," featuring "false or unbelievable accusations," thereby also dismissing the victims' testimony and their trauma.
The statement touted "Plan 2 Protect," the Society's abuse prevention program, as "proof" it takes abuse allegations seriously. Church Militant has confirmed, however, that Plan 2 Protect was implemented primarily to ensure that the SSPX would receive insurance coverage against sex abuse lawsuits.
And while the U.S. district established, for the first time in SSPX history, an "independent" review board less than two weeks after Church Militant's April 2020 exposé, it has refused requests to publish the names of board members, leading many to question the actual independence of the board, and whether members are merely SSPX associates vested in protecting the Society.
For his part, Fr. de Jorna took the side of the Catholic Academy of France in condemning the CIASE report as allegedly overblown.
Criticizing the methodology used in drawing up the estimate of 330,000 victims, the Academy stated, "The disproportionate evaluation of this scourge feeds discourse with a 'systemic' character" and is an attempt "to bring down the Church as an institution."
Other critics have noted the ideological bias of CIASE members, some who concluded that clerical abuse was the result of priestly celibacy and an all-male priesthood.
While the conclusions may have been erroneous, the French bishops refused to dismiss the fact of clerical abuse so easily.
One month after the report's release, the bishops met for their Autumn Plenary Assembly and pledged major changes in governance, including more independent oversight.
"Thanks to CIASE," said Abp. Eric de Moulins-Beaufort of Rheims, "we see — and it is a frightening observation — that strong relationships, the structuring relationships of humanity, can always be perverted."
As to the SSPX, its French district superior downplayed the existence of predators as "only a tiny proportion of priests" in the SSPX.
"A greater insistence would make believe that the number would be huge, which is not the case," Fr. de Jorna told La Vie. "Do not exaggerate what should not be. These are unspeakable acts, but that does not mean that we are going to give conferences on the subject."
Statistics cited by the former U.S. SSPX district superior, however, call into question de Jorna's figures.
Shortly after Church Militant's April 2020 Spotlight exposing SSPX abuse, Fr. Jürgen Wegner admitted to victims' advocate Ruth Ann Parks in a phone call discussing sex abuse in the Society, "There are hundreds of cases."
It was unclear whether Wegner was referring to the SSPX globally, which has approximately 700 priests, or to the Society in the United States, which has about 50 clergy. In either case, the statistics, if accurate, are unusually high, and rival numbers in the wider Catholic Church. The numbers also undercut the SSPX's refrain that sex abuse in the "Novus Ordo Church" is the result of "liberalizing" tendencies in Vatican II.
The SSPX's refusal to publish the names of credibly accused clergy ensures these questions will remain.
At the Oct. 5, 2021 press conference announcing the publication of the CIASE report on abuse, Sauvé said, "Faced with this scourge, for a very long time the Catholic Church's immediate reaction was to protect itself as an institution, and it has shown complete, even cruel, indifference to those having suffered abuse."
That instinct to protect the institution rather than victims ended up harming more than helping the Church, forced to face a reckoning after thousands of lawsuits filed by many thousands of victims, leading to massive payouts and, in some cases, bankruptcy, with guilty clergy often resigning or even imprisoned. Dioceses also took positive steps to ensure greater accountability, including the establishment of independent review boards and publishing lists of credibly accused clergy.
The SSPX's obstinate conduct during the abuse probe — contrasted with the cooperative behavior of other communities and dioceses — and its continued refusal to publish a list of credibly accused clergy or submit themselves to independent oversight may lead critics to conclude the Society continues to favor protecting the institution over victims. It may be that, like many Catholic dioceses, the SSPX will be forced to face its own reckoning one day only once more victims start taking a stand — in the public square, and in the courts of law, both civil and criminal.