Court clears French cardinal of shielding suspected paedophile priest

3 min

Lyon (AFP)

A French appeals court on Thursday overturned a cardinal's conviction for failing to report alleged sex abuse by a priest in a case that rocked the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, was given a six-month suspended jail sentence in March 2019 for not reporting that a priest in his diocese had allegedly abused dozens of boy scouts in the 1980s and 1990s.

Barbarin was found guilty of twice failing to report Bernard Preynat to the police, first in 2010 when the priest admitted to the cardinal that he had a history of abuse, and again in 2014, when Alexandre Hezez -- one of Preynat's alleged victims -- told Barbarin what had happened to him.

"Cardinal Barbarin is innocent," Jean-Felix Luciani, a lawyer for the cleric said.

"The court has recognised that the cardinal was telling the truth. He made mistakes. He admitted that. The Church certainly has made mistakes, but he is not the Church."

Neither Barbarin, who was not in court for the verdict, nor the Vatican has commented on the decision.

Plaintiffs in the case said they would take Thursday's decision to France's highest court of appeal.

Barbarin, 69, is the most senior French priest to be caught up in a global clerical paedophilia scandal which has seen clergy members hauled before courts from Argentina to Australia.

He consistently denied the charges against him but nonetheless offered his resignation to Pope Francis, who refused it pending the outcome of his appeal.

He stepped back from his duties after last year's conviction.

- 'Horrible facts' -

The priest he is accused of protecting, Preynat, has been defrocked and is awaiting a ruling on March 16 in his trial on sex abuse charges.

Preynat confessed during his trial this month to "caresses" he knew were forbidden, and admitted he got sexual pleasure from his acts with boy scouts at camps which he supervised.

Barbarin, a staunch conservative who took over as archbishop of Lyon in 2002, has long been accused by victims' groups in Lyon of turning a blind eye to decades of child abuse in his diocese which blighted many lives.

Investigators initially dropped the case against him in 2016 after concluding the allegations were either impossible to prove or had happened too long ago to be brought to court.

But a group of victims succeeded in having the probe reopened, which led to Barbarin being put on trial.

He insisted that he had "never tried to hide, let alone cover up, these horrible facts".

But the trial court ruled that he chose not to tell the authorities of the abuse allegations "in order to preserve the institution to which he belongs".

The appeals judges said Thursday that Barbarin should have reported Preynat after his 2010 confession. But his failure do so happened too long ago, under the statute of limitations, to be punishable now, they ruled.

- 'Disappointment' -

They also found that he could not be held criminally liable for anything that happened after 2014, when Hezez came to him with claims of abuse.

Hezez was by then an adult and nothing prevented him from filing a complaint against Preynat on his own account, the judges said -- upholding an argument of the defence.

"It is not up to the cardinal to report an offence in the place of a man who is not incapable of doing so himself," said Luciani.

Jean Boudot, a lawyer for victims, said there was a "strong feeling of disappointment" with the decision.

He labelled the court's decision about Barbarin's action after 2014 "incoherent", saying it amounted to saying that "there is no obligation to report sexual violence against minors once the minor comes of age."