Bishop Olivier de Germay of Ajaccio has been named the new archbishop of Lyon in a surprise appointment to the French diocese worn down by a years-long sexual abuse scandal that forced Cardinal Philippe Barbarin to resign.
A former paratrooper ordained at 37, he is an unexpected conservative choice for the historic archdiocese, whose prelate has also held the title Primate of the Gauls since 1079. His name was not among possible candidates rumoured in advance.
Reaction to the news was mixed, with secular media branding him as a homophobe close to Church traditionalists and supporters praising him as a man with experience handling difficult situations.
Bishop de Germay himself expressed surprise at the nomination and said he had no set plan for the archdiocese and would first listen to what people had to say.
“I'm coming in humility – I'd almost say on tiptoe – to a diocese which has indeed suffered,” he told KTO television. “We think first of all of the suffering of victims of sexual abuse, but it is the whole Church (in Lyon) that has suffered.”
Cardinal Barbarin resigned in March after an appeals court acquitted him of an earlier conviction for failing to report widespread sexual abuse by a priest in the diocese. Bernard Preynat was defrocked and sentenced to five years in prison for abusing dozens of boy scouts over at least two decades.
Barbarin, who arrived in Lyon in 2002, only reported Preynat to authorities in 2015 despite knowing about the abuse for several years. He has denied any cover-up but admitted he handled the scandal badly.
Bishop Michel Dubost, who has won praise as apostolic administrator in Lyon since June 2019, hailed Germay’s appointment. “He will be welcome in Lyon,” he told the daily La Croix.
Son of a general, Bishop de Germay graduated from the Saint Cyr military academy and was a paratrooper deployed in Africa and Iraq before leaving the French forces at 30 to enter the seminary. In the bishops' conference, he is a member of groups on catechism and bioethics.
Toutes Apôtresm (All Women Apostles), a group of Catholic women calling for senior posts in the Church, expressed its “perplexity and immense disappointment” at Germay’s appointment.
“Where are the signs of openness, of the end of a clerical self-segregation?” it asked. Their communique quoted Anne Soupa, a 73-year-old theologian who had applied to become Lyon archbishop, as saying the appointment “perpetuates a macho and clerical mode of governance”.
In her bid, Dr Soupa, also from a military family background and who is married with four children, denied she sought ordination and argued the post as head of the archdiocese should be shared between her as chief administrator and a bishop as senior cleric. The poor management of previous archbishops had proven the need to split these roles, she said.
The abuse scandal divided the Lyon archdiocese and haunted the French Church for several years. A long campaign by victims led to the trials of Preynat and Barbarin, and was publicised in the award-winning movie By the Grace of God.
It also prompted the bishops conference to appoint an independent commission that has already found more than 3,000 people who it said were sexually abused by about 1,500 priests and Church employees since 1950.