12 February 2019, The Tablet

Independent abuse commission established in France

A film about the abuse scandal 'By the Grace of God' had its first public showing at the Berlin film festival

Independent abuse commission established in France

French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon during a break inside the courthouse Jan. 7 in Lyon. Cardinal Barbarin and others are on trial for failing to discipline a local priest who allegedly abused children in the 1980s
Photo: CNS photo/Emmanuel Foudrot, Reuters

An independent commission to investigate sexual abuse in the French Church since 1950 began its work last week aiming to interview victims, inspect files and study trends for a report due in 2021.

Jean-Marc Sauvé, the retired senior judge appointed by the bishops’ conference to head the inquiry, said he had a free hand to choose the 21 doctors, lawyers, sociologists and theologians serving in the commission. There are neither victims’ advocates nor Church representatives in the commission, which the bishops will finance. Victims’ groups have criticised Sauvé’s decision, but he said it would ensure impartiality.

The commission began work amid mounting pressure because of the abuse scandal. A Senate panel studying sexual abuse in French society held a public hearing last week focusing on the specific character of cases in the Church. In her comments to the panel, Sr Véronique Margron, head of the Conference of Religious of France, defended the commission and said the Church needed “a counter-balance” to its authoritarian style of organisation.

While Lyon Cardinal Philippe Barbarin awaits the verdict in his trial for non-denunciation of a paedophile priest, which is expected on 7 March, a film about the abuse scandal that has rocked his archdiocese had its first public showing at the Berlin film festival. “By the Grace of God” takes its title from the cardinal’s unguarded comment that most cases in the scandal were “by the grace of God” now beyond the statute of limitations.

Two lawsuits have been filed in France to delay its premiere here. Lawyers for the accused abuser, Fr Bernard Preynat, argue the film could prejudice his trial later this year, while a colleague of Barbarin has objected to being named in the film.

The film focuses on how three abuse victims decided to break years of silence about Preynat’s abuse of young scouts and the defensive reaction of Lyon archdiocese to their complaints. Preynat has admitted to several cases of abuse.

Director François Ozon said he went to Belgium and Luxembourg to shoot all scenes inside churches to avoid any possible pressure from the French Church. Two former nuns have separately welcomed Pope Francis’s admission that sisters had been sexually abused by priests and the Church must do more to stop this. “It has taken us 20 years to be able to speak out,” said Laurence Poujade. “For me, this is a stage, and by no means the last one.”

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