After the shock of the Sauvé commission’s findings on clerical sexual abuse, the French Church fumbled its response by sparking off controversies about the secrecy of confession and the best way to compensate victims.
An ill-advised statement that confessional secrecy stood above French law earned Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, head of the bishops’ conference, a rare invitation from Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin to meet and discuss the sensitive issue.
The archbishop also said the Church would appeal to Catholics to help pay to compensate victims, rather than foot the possibly huge bill alone, as the commission led by retired senior civil servant Jean-Marc Sauvé suggested.
The Sauvé report estimated about 216,000 victims of clerical sexual abuse since 1950, a total rising to 330,000 when lay Church workers are included.
All eyes will now be on the bishops’ next plenary meeting in Lourdes from 3 to 9 November, where they should work out their first practical conclusions from among the 45 suggestions made by the committee. Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort made his missteps in a live interview with FranceInfo radio when asked if priests should be required to report abuse cases they learn about in the confessional.
The Sauvé report said confessional secrecy could not prevail over the duty to protect a child’s life and argued that abuse violated the fifth commandment (“thou shalt not kill”) rather than the sixth (“thou shalt not commit adultery”), under which canon law treats abuse as a violation of priestly celibacy.
“The secrecy of confession is imposed on us (by canon law) and is above the laws of the Republic,” Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort said, adding that a penitent will only speak of abuse because confession is secret.
Darmanin, who spoke with President Emmanuel Macron about it, insisted that French law had priority and invited Moulins-Beaufort to discuss the issue. They were due to meet today.
He said priests normally enjoyed professional secrecy like doctors or lawyers, but “we cannot let tens of thousands of (abused) children remain in secret and not be able to share this information”.
The question is all the more sensitive because French Muslims who claim sharia is above French law are regularly contradicted by officials on the basis of the separation of Church and State, or laïcité.
“In the emotion of the moment, he did not use the exact terms,” a Church spokeswoman said. “The secrecy of confession, of course, is not above the laws of the Republic.”
The archbishop later tweeted a revised version of his comment: “We must not set the secrecy of confession against the laws of the Republic since they do not impose its lifting.”
In the same interview, Moulins-Beaufort noted the report said compensation should come from abusers and bishops, as a sign the Church assumed its responsibility, and not from a special fund with contributions from the faithful that the bishops recently created.
The bishops opted for the special fund because French law does not allow them to use normal collections or legacy donations for such purposes. “This puts us in a difficult situation … we don’t have money hidden in cellars,” he said. The few church buildings it could sell would not bring in that much, and the Vatican can’t help either.
When the report was presented, François Deveau, head of the Lyon victims association that exposed the scandal there, bluntly told the bishops in the audience: “You must pay for all these crimes.” He said it twice, and slowly, as if he put a full stop behind each word. Now the bishops have to figure out how to do this.