Sexual abuse and ‘cruel indifference’: the disgrace of the French Catholic Church

Landmark report estimates around 330,000 children were abused by clergymen and officials between 1950 and 2020

Rosary beads on a bible
(Image credit: Unsplash)

“The numbers are staggering,” said Gino Hoel on (Paris). A landmark report published last week estimates that about 330,000 children were abused by clergymen and officials of the Catholic Church in France between 1950 and 2020. At least 3,000 priests and officials performed criminal acts, according to the 2,500-page review by Jean-Marc Sauvé, a former senior civil servant; about 90% of their victims were boys.

Until 2000, the investigation found, the Church hierarchy had shown “cruel indifference” to the 216,000 victims of the clergy and 114,000 victims of teachers and other personnel in Church institutions – and had sought to cover up scandals rather than redress wrongs. Many cases have not or will not be prosecuted because the accused have died or the statute of limitations has expired. “The Catholic Church is, after the circle of family and friends, the environment that has the highest prevalence of sexual violence”, the report found.

The report is all the more “explosive” because it is the culmination of nearly three years’ meticulous work, said Le Monde (Paris): it heard from 6,500 victims and witnesses. Among its 45 recommendations, it proposes that the Church pays compensation to victims, overhauls its internal legal system, reforms its governance, and appoints women to senior roles –a reflection of the fact that most crimes were carried out by men.

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But “minimal measures” won’t be enough for confidence in the Church to be regained. What would help, said Jean-Marie Guénois in Le Figaro (Paris), is for the report’s more ambitious recommendations to be acted upon: it suggests that married men be ordained as priests, and that exceptions be made to the confidentiality of confession. Alas, those reforms depend on approval from Rome, which has been reluctant to take such steps.

This story is now “shockingly familiar”, said The Irish Times (Dublin): similar abuse has been exposed in Ireland, Australia, Germany and the US. Pope Francis expressed a deep sense of shame – “my shame, our shame” – but the Church response must go beyond the usual “mea culpas”, and must implement real change.

Failure to do so would be costly, said Norimitsu Onishi and Aurelien Breeden in The New York Times. The Church’s influence in France has waned significantly in recent decades: in the 1960s, 96% of French people were baptised Catholics; today, well under 50% identify as Catholic. The Church and its leaders must now recognise that this report puts it at “a turning point–reform, or fade further”.

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