Commission into French church sex abuse claims opens

Paris (AFP) –


An independent commission set up by the French Catholic Church to look at allegations of sexual abuse by clerics begins its work on Monday by launching an appeal for witness statements.

France's Catholic bishops set up the commission last year in response to a number of scandals that shook the Church in the country and also worldwide.

It now has the task to shed light on sexual abuse committed by French clerics on minors or vulnerable individuals going right back to the 1950s.

"For the first time in France, an independent institution is going to launch, over the course of a year, an appeal for witness statements about sexual abuse," said commission president Jean-Marc Sauve.

He has promised that the commission -- made up of 22 legal professionals, doctors, historians, sociologists and theologians -- would deliver its conclusions by the end of 2020.

"It is an important action to be able to give victims psychological or legal help," he told AFP.

The commission opens after Pope Francis in May passed a landmark new measure to oblige those who know about sex abuse in the Catholic Church to report it to their superiors, a move which could bring countless new cases to light.

Sauve expects thousands of telephone calls to a special hotline as well as messages to an email address, with victims then offered face-to-face interviews in a later stage.

The Bishops' Conference of France agreed in November to set up the commission after scandals which shook the Catholic Church at home and abroad.

-'Hopeful but concerned' -

The move sparked mixed reactions from victims' associations, who applauded attempts to encourage survivors to speak out, but questioned the French government's willingness to act.

"I'm hopeful this will help to break the silence, but also concerned about whether anything will come of the commission's findings," said Veronique Garnier, who represents a group of victims invited by bishops to the southwestern pilgrimage town of Lourdes last autumn.

For Olivier Savignac, from the same association, "This is the first time that such a substantial consultation has been created and we're hoping to see a wave of victims come forward", he said.

"I hope that public authorities will consider this problem in all areas of society."

Francois Devaux, president of La Parole Liberee ("The Liberated Word") association agreed the project was "a step in the right direction" but doubted "if people who have been betrayed by authority will be inclined to testify".

"I'm worried that it'll be brushed under the carpet, like counselling services" set up in churches, he added, criticising the commission's failure to include survivors' representatives.

French cardinal Philippe Barbarin was handed a six-month suspended jail sentence in March for failing to report sex abuse by a priest under his authority.

Also in March, the Vatican's former number three, Australian Cardinal George Pell, was sentenced to six years in prison by a Melbourne court for the "brazen" sexual abuse of two choirboys.