30 January 2020, The Tablet

French court overturns Barbarin conviction

French court overturns Barbarin conviction

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin in Rome last year.
Vandeville Eric/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

A Lyon court has overturned Cardinal Philippe Barbarin’s conviction on a charge of covering up a major clerical sexual abuse scandal.

The court announced its decision on Thursday, putting an end to four years of investigations and controversy in a scandal that has deeply shaken the French Church and angered many churchgoers, especially in the Lyon area.

“This injustice has been repaired today,” Jean-Félix Luciani, one of his lawyers, declared. “Cardinal Barbarin is innocent.” Barbarin has always denied any wrongdoing.

Barbarin, who as archbishop of Lyon was also Primate of the Gauls, offered his resignation to Pope Francis after he received a suspended six-month sentence last March for not reporting an admitted sexual abuser, the now defrocked priest Bernard Preynat, to police.

The Pope declined it and advised Barbarin, the most senior French churchman involved in the international abuse scandal, to wait for the appeals judgment.

Amid pressure from victims and public opinion, the 69-year-old stepped back from his role as Lyon archbishop, a post he took over in 2002, and mostly disappeared from view.

Francis then sidelined him in June when he named the experienced retired Bishop Michel Dubost as apostolic administrator with full authority, leaving Barbarin a lame duck likely to be replaced now that his legal battle is over.

While this chapter may be nearing closure, another part of the Lyon abuse scandal rumbles on with the decision in Preynat’s trial due on March 16.

Only 10 of Preynat’s estimated 75 or so abuse cases were on trial because they occurred between 1986 and 1991, still within the statute of limitations. He openly admitted to serial abuse of boy scouts starting in the 1970s.

Preynat, 74, said he was abused by priests and seminarians in his youth. “For me, at the time, I wasn’t committing sexual aggressing, just caressing them,” he told the court earlier this month. He also suggested several Lyon prelates knew of his abuse over the years and did nothing. "They told me 'you're sick' ... they should have helped me ... they let me become a priest,” he said.

A psychologist testifying in court called Preynat “mi-prêtre, mi-traître” (part priest, part traitor) for the way he was popular in the community and won the confidence of boys he then abused. The prosecutor asked for a prison sentence of at least eight years.

The victims' group La Parole Libérée (The Liberated Word) pressed the case against Barbarin in a private prosecution after Lyon’s public prosecutor decided there was not enough proof to bring charges against the cardinal.

The group’s struggle was depicted in “By the Grace of God,” a film about the Preynat scandal that won the second-prize Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival last February and has eight nominations for a César award — the French Oscar — to be decided next month.

The film takes its title from an unguarded comment by Barbarin that most cases in the scandal were “by the grace of God” beyond the statute of limitations.

Director François Ozon shot the film’s scenes inside churches in Belgium and Luxembourg to avoid any possible pressure from the French hierarchy.

About 15 of Preynat’s victims have urged the Vatican to recognise the responsibility of his archdiocese in the affair, which could open the door to compensation payments by the Church.

More than 20 of his alleged victims have filed for damages of over 10,000 euros each.

When it reduced Preynat to the lay state, the archdiocesan court said he now had more time to consider his victims’ financial demands. But Preynat is insolvent and the archdiocese had no answer to questions about how the victims could otherwise be compensated.

The French bishops have appointed an independent panel led by senior official Jean-Marc Sauvé to investigate sexual abuse cases for a report due in 2021. More than 3,400 complaints have come in since it began work last June.

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