The Lyon criminal court has announced a five-year prison sentence for Bernard Preynat, the defrocked priest at the centre of France’s worst clerical sexual abuse scandal, in a court building closed to the public and media because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Public prosecutor Dominique Sauves said the 74-year-old ex-cleric, who was present for the sentencing, had ruined the lives of boy scouts he abused for decades while a priest in the Lyon area.
"The mask fell on the man you are, the man you have been," she said, adding that Preynat had "used the silence of the parents and the silence of the Church" to exploit boys aged between seven and 15 years old for two decades until 1991.
Preynat’s continuation in ministry until 2015, despite his superiors’ knowledge of his crimes, was the main reason behind the shaming and eventual resignation of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin as Lyon archbishop.
Pope Francis accepted it on 6 March after Barbarin won an appeal in late January against his suspended six-month sentence for the cover-up.
Sauves had asked the court for an eight-year minimum sentence for Preynat, who asked pardon from nine victims who testified at his trial in January without convincing the court that he actually felt any remorse.
A lawyer for Preynat told journalists outside the court building that the judge did not announce a detention warrant, meaning it was unclear when the ex-priest was expected to start the sentence.
Lawyer Frédéric Doyez said he had not yet discussed with Preynat any possible appeal, which would further delay a final decision. He later told journalists the defrocked priest will appeal the sentence, which could take months before the case returns to court. The coronavirus crisis may add more time to that. Since the court did not issue a detention warrant, it is probable that Preynat would be able to remain outside jail until his appeal is decided.
The sentence was criticised by the abuse survivors' network, SNAP, who said: "While we are grateful that this dangerous man will now be kept away from children, we worry about the message being sent by this sentence.
"Fr Preynat himself admitted perpetrating these crimes. There was no doubt about Fr Preynat’s guilt, nor any mitigating factors that would have lessened his charges. He is, by all accounts, an extremely dangerous serial abuser.
"We cannot help but feel that the sentence imposed by the courts in this case is far too short for the nature of these crimes. As survivors of sexual abuse know, being abused as a child carries a lifetime sentence. Yet in this case, Fr Preynat will serve less than 23 days for each child he admits abusing.
"Not only does the serial nature of Fr Preynat’s abuse make him likely to re-offend when he gets out of prison, but the sentence barely registers as a deterrent. In putting Fr Preynat behind bars for such a short amount of time, we worry that other abusers will be emboldened instead of concerned about serving time.
"At the end of the day, we are grateful that this dangerous man is behind bars. We hope that this news will encourage other victims to come forward and make a report to police so that their abuser can also see the inside of a jail cell."