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Child abuse scandal puts French cardinal in ‘spotlight’

Safin Hamed, AFP | Roman Catholic Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, is France's most prominent clergyman.

Allegations of a cover-up in the highest reaches of French Catholicism have revived the spectre of clerical child sex abuse and cast a pall over France’s most prominent cardinal.


“Are we seeing the makings of a French ‘Spotlight’?” asked French daily Le Figaro on Tuesday, referring to the Oscar-winning movie that charts the disclosure of a massive cover-up of child abuse by the Roman Catholic Church in the US. While the comparison with the nascent French investigation is tempting, it is obviously a long stretch – if only because of the absence, in the French case, of a Spotlight-like team of investigative journalists uncovering the facts.

Still, the allegations have the potential to profoundly rattle the Church in a country where half the population continues to consider itself Catholic. In particular, they threaten to derail the career of France’s most prominent clergyman, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, a man long touted as a possible candidate for the papacy.

The 65-year-old prelate has fiercely denied charges that he covered up paedophilia crimes by failing to remove a priest in his diocese known to have abused boy scouts decades before he took up his post in 2002. Barbarin is also accused of failing to act against another Lyon priest when it emerged in 2009 he had abused a boy in the past.

"I have never, never, never covered up acts of paedophilia," Barbarin said at a press conference on Tuesday, noting that the cases had passed the legal statute of limitations when they were reported. He added an unfortunate "thank God" – and later apologised for his choice of words.

The cardinal spoke just hours after French Prime Minister Manuel Valls urged him to “take his responsibility and act” upon the allegations of cover-up – a rare step for France, which has a strict separation of church and state.

Pandora’s box

Barbarin is among six church officials targeted in a preliminary judicial investigation that grew out of allegations that a priest had molested boy scouts in the 1980s. Barbarin wasn't a cardinal at the time and says he was convinced the priest had been reformed by the time he found out about the abuse in 2007.

The priest, Bernard Preynat, was charged on January 27 of this year with sexual aggression and rape of a minor by a person in authority. The charges are based on complaints filed by members of an association of alleged victims of the priest, known as Parole libérée (Freed word).

Several of the alleged victims have spoken to Euronews journalist Valérie Gauriat about the abuse. “I remember the smell of sweat, I remember contact with clothes. I remember his wandering hands under my shirt, which held me tightly against him,” said Bertrand Virieux, a co-founder of Parole libérée.

“He used to put his leg behind me to block me and he rubbed against me; I remember that very well, I still have the sensation of his genitals against me,” recalled Didier Burdet, another plaintiff. “He would say 'Tell me you love me’. And then he would say ‘You’re my little boy’, ‘It’s our secret, you musn’t tell anyone’.”

The association says it has received dozens of testimonies from alleged victims, who had previously kept quiet about their story, or were simply not listened to. “Since our establishment, barely two months ago, we have been submerged by messages from victims seeking psychological support or advice,” says Dominique Murillot, the wife of a former child abuse victim and a psychologist at Parole libérée.

“We’re even afraid to open our mail boxes in the morning,” she told FRANCE 24. “We feel like we’ve opened a Pandora’s box. This goes well beyond Lyon, it’s a national problem!”

‘Legally right, morally wrong’

The association described the cardinal’s defence on Tuesday as “pathetic”. In particular, it blasted Barbarin’s assertion that “thank God” the statute of limitations had expired, saying it was evidence that the top-ranking clergyman was out of touch with victims, whose suffering continues decades after the events.

On Wednesday, French editorialists said the scandal would inevitably tarnish the image of France’s most prominent clergyman – a hero of conservative Catholics due to his fierce opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, and a champion of the Middle East’s persecuted Christians, whom he has visited during recent trips to Syria and Iraq.

French daily Sud-Ouest said Barbarin was defending himself with the “clumsiness of a school kid who has been caught out”. The cardinal “did not sin by action, but by omission, by leaving in place priests he knew were responsible for paedophile acts and by failing to inform the justice system. As if the Church could enforce its own justice. As if the confidentiality of confession could still prevail over that of investigation.”

“Barbarin is legally right, but morally wrong,” said the Journal de la Haute-Marne, noting that in the two cases linked to the cardinal the statute of limitations has indeed expired. But, it added, “from a moral point of view, paedophilia is a crime that knows no expiry date”.

“Some saw Barbarin as a future pope, but that is no longer the case,” wrote L’Alsace, noting that the whole French Catholic church would inevitably be tarnished along with its most emblematic representative: “The dyke has been breached and the revelations have awoken a shameful past.”

La Croix, France’s leading Catholic daily, said the Church had “for too long sought the protection of silence (…), a silence designed not to protect the criminals – though some have profited from it – but to protect the reputation of the Church”. Such a silence, the daily argued, now “comes at a hefty price”.

Adding to Barbarin’s woes, Le Parisien reported that the Lyon cardinal had in 2013 promoted a convicted sex offender, whose suspended jail term in 2007 was well known to the archdiocese.

Concealing abuse elsewhere

Guy Baret, an expert on the Catholic Church and author of “Pape François, le grand malentendu” (Pope Francis, the great misunderstanding), says Barbarin has inherited a situation for which he is not directly responsible. “There is no doubt he is not an ace when it comes to communication,” he told FRANCE 24, “but it was his predecessor who moved around paedophile priests instead of defrocking them”.

Baret said the French Church had evolved in recent years, in line with the wider Catholic world. “Pope Benedict XVI began the process of lifting the culture of secrecy on child abuse, and Pope Francis has continued this endeavour,” he said.

He claimed the present focus on the Church has concealed a similar culture of secrecy in France’s national education system, “where teachers guilty of abuse have been passed on from one school to another”.

France was shocked last year by the disclosure that a school headmaster who had been appointed despite a previous conviction for possessing child pornography was charged with aggravated rape of several pupils.

On Wednesday, the Education Ministry said it had struck off twenty-seven members of staff in French schools and high schools in 2015 because of paedophilia-related offenses, adding that it would tighten cooperation with the justice ministry to scrutinize the criminal records of all teachers it employs.

Not another 'Spotlight'

Baret stressed the role of social media in opening the Pandora’s box of child abuse claims: “Victims used to think they were alone, but now there is a sense that the truth is coming out, massively.” He suggested more allegations of abuse by priests were likely to emerge in the coming months, though he ruled out the possibility of a massive scandal similar to the one revealed in the Spotlight movie.

“The legislation in France and the US is very different. In the latter country there is a lot of money involved. Victims can claim massive compensation, and lawyers have a financial incentive to pursue these cases. This is not the case in France,” he said, arguing that French society was also less secretive than its US counterpart.

The expert said that, in the long term, cases of child abuse were likely to decrease as a result of better training of priests and a growing awareness within the clergy of the problem of paedophilia. He added: “fewer candidates also means more time to vet them”.

But for author Christian Terras, who has investigated dozens of cases of paedophilia in the French and US clergies, the Catholic establishment will only act if victims and the media continue to spur it into action.

“The Church continues to cultivate this culture of silence,” he told FRANCE 24. “It only acts when events force it to. It moves ahead with a sword to its side – and doesn’t take the lead.”

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