Church in the World
Bishop sentenced for not exposing paedophile priest
23 June 2001
A French bishop convicted of failing to alert the police to the crimes of a paedophile priest was given a suspended jail sentence last week, Alain Woodrow reports from Paris.
The case of Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux, Normandy, is unprecedented in modern French legal history. For the first time, a bishop stood in the dock, on 14 June, accused of refusing to denounce one of his priests, Fr Ren? Bissey, convicted of 'ill treating and sexually abusing minors of under 15 years of age'. This priest received an 18-year prison sentence last October for molesting 10 young boys, aged 12-17, in Caen (Calvados) where he served as parish priest. The bishop had remained silent during Fr Bissey?s trial, where he was called as a witness, simply stating that 'if the victims? families feel betrayed by their bishop, I will take the consequences'.
His attitude shocked many Catholics, especially the families of the children concerned, to whom he had addressed not a single word of sympathy or excuse. During his own two-day trial, the 66-year-old Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux had to listen to the outraged accusations of three Catholic families whose children had been abused, and who refused Pican?s tortuous explanations concerning his silence, which he described as 'an option of conscience'.
'I refuse to enter into a process of denunciation', explained Bishop Pican. 'I cannot agree to do so because I am in the same situation as a doctor.' The presiding judge then quoted a statement made by the French hierarchy last November, that 'a bishop cannot, and will not, remain passive, even less cover up criminal acts' of paedophilia. He asked the bishop if his attitude had changed since this declaration. Pican finally admitted that he would 'persuade the priest to denounce himself'. And if he refused to so? 'I cannot answer that question', replied the bishop.
The public prosecutor had called the Pope and Cardinal Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris, to the bar as witnesses, but had to make do with Cardinal Louis-Marie Bill?, Archbishop of Lyons and president of the episcopal conference, and Bishop Jacques Fihey of Coutances. Both bishops defended their colleague. Cardinal Bill? criticised the 'intellectual terrorism' of those who demand a black - or- white answer to denounce or not to denounce. 'Beware of simplistic answers', he said. 'There are many different aspects of the question which contribute to a responsible discernment.' Bishop Fihey spoke of 'the special relationship ? both fraternal and paternal ? that unites a priest to his bishop. If I denounce a priest, I lose the confidence of my clergy, and it is finally the potential victims, the children, who will suffer the most.'
Bishop Pican finally admitted that he had made 'an important error of judgement'. A suspended prison sentence of six months was called for by the prosecutor. In the absence of an appeal, this penalty is likely to be confirmed by the judges on 4 September.
In French law, confessional secrecy is included in the definition of 'professional secrecy'. In 1891, the law extended this definition to include confidential remarks made to a priest outside the confessional. This also applies to non-Catholic ministers. But, in the present case, the bishop could not invoke professional secrecy since Fr Bissey had not confided in him. He learnt of the priest?s paedophilia from the victims.
The trial of a Catholic bishop acted as an electric shock in the French Catholic Church. It triggered off the discussion by the bishops of paedophilia among priests at their annual meeting in Lourdes last November. There are at present 20 priests before the courts for child abuse; 30 more priests have received prison sentences in recent months. The French Catholic Church has 25,000 priests.
After the Lourdes assembly, the bishops set up a study group on the question, under the leadership of Bishop Nicolas Aubertin of Chartres. It will meet four or five times a year, and is preparing a brochure to be distributed among clergy and laity working with children.
As the judge said in Caen, 'There will be a before and an after the Pican trial'.