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Cardinal’s cover-up trial puts French Catholic Church in glare of abuse scandal

Jeff Pachoud, AFP | Archbishop of Lyon Philippe Barbarin leads a Mass in Saint-Jean cathedral in Lyon on April 3, 2016.

The highest-profile Catholic cleric to be caught up in a paedophile scandal in France goes on trial on Monday charged with failing to report a priest who abused boy scouts in the 1980s and 90s.

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Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, in central-eastern France, is accused along with five others from his diocese of helping cover up abuse in one of the parishes in the area.

The 68-year-old bishop, who denies the allegations, is one of the most prominent Catholic figures in France. He could face up to three years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros if convicted of failing to report the abuse.

France's Catholic church has been roiled in recent years by allegations against predator priests which have come to light in the wake of a global move by victims to come forward with evidence.

Clerics have been denounced in countries as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Chile, Ireland, and the United States, leading Pope Francis to promise to rid the church of the scourge that has done enormous damage to its standing.

The scandal in Lyon first came to public attention in 2015 when a former boy scout went public with allegations that a local priest, Bernard Preynat, had abused him as a child 25 years earlier.

François Devaux, who has since formed a victims' group, also filed a complaint against Barbarin, the priest's superior, alleging that he had known about the abuse and covered it up.

After six months of investigation and 10 hours of interviews with Barbarin, investigators dropped the case in 2016, saying the allegations against him were either too old or impossible to prove.

But a group of victims succeeded in reopening the case which led to Barbarin and the others, including the archbishop of Auch and the bishop of Nevers, having to stand trial.

"We hope this time to have a ruling that will be clear and obvious for everyone," Devaux said before the start of the trial.

Response ‘inadequate’

The victims' group, La Parole Libérée (Freed Speech), began with a handful of people, but soon received calls and testimony from a total of 85 people claiming to have been victims of Preynat in Lyon.

After he was first denounced in 1991, the priest was prevented from leading scout groups, but he was later allowed to teach children and held positions of authority in parishes until the scandal became public in 2015.

Preynat has acknowledged abusing boys and is set to be tried later this year.

Barbarin told the newspaper Le Monde in August 2017 that he had never concealed allegations against Preynat, but acknowledged shortcomings in his handling of them.

"I myself realise that my response at the time was inadequate," he said.

Barbarin told Le Monde that he had previously opened an investigation of Preynat under church or canon law because a judicial investigation was moving too slowly.

Vatican ‘complicity’?

The story of Devaux, the victim who brought the scandal to light, is to be told in a film this year called "Grace à Dieu" ("Thanks to God"), by acclaimed French director François Ozon.

Two other French religious figures have been convicted of failing to report child abuse in the past: the archbishop of Bayeux-Lisieux, Pierre Rican, in 2001, and the former bishop of Orleans, Andre Fort, last year.

The head of the Vatican's powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Spanish Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, has also been accused of complicity in the alleged cover-up in Lyon.

In correspondence with Barbarin about the priest, the Vatican's number three advised the cardinal to take "necessary disciplinary measures while avoiding public scandal" -- seen as a warning to keep the abuse quiet.

The Vatican has cited his immunity from prosecution and he will not go on trial.

Pope Francis himself met Barbarin in early 2016, and later told the Catholic newspaper La Croix that it would make no sense for the cardinal to resign before standing trial.

"According to the information at my disposal, Cardinal Barbarin took the appropriate measures, he took things in hand. He is brave, creative, a missionary," Francis was quoted as saying.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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