07 November 2022, The Tablet

Outrage and despair in France at scale of abuse by bishops

by Tom Heneghan , in Paris

The total of bishops implicated in cases of sexual abuse is now 11 and some bishops are under investigation.

Outrage and despair in France at scale of abuse by bishops

French Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard of Bordeaux receives his red hat from then-Pope Benedict XVI during his induction into the College of Cardinals at the Vatican March 24, 2006. The cardinal has admitted to abusing a 14-year-old girl 35 years ago.
CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters

France’s beleaguered bishops studied their options under civil and canon law at their autumn plenary in Lourdes this week while the ire of lay Catholics around the country rose to incendiary levels and shocking new revelations emerged.  

As The Tablet reported on 17 October, a Vatican sanction against a sexually abusive bishop, Michel Santier of Creteil, was hushed up for a year. Bishop Santier, who retired in 2021 at 73 ostensibly on health grounds, had held “strip confession” sessions with two young men in the 1990s.

Rouen Archbishop Dominique Lebrun then said five further men claimed abuse by the retired prelate, who admitted his guilt in a letter to Pope Francis. The cover-up was exposed one year after an independent panel estimated a shocking total of 216,000 victims of clerical sexual abuse since 1950. 

The bishops in Lourdes added closed-door sessions with a theologian, a jurist and a Vatican official to the agenda after learning about Bishop Santier. Then on Monday, Conference head Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort shocked the plenary even further with the announcement that Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard had admitted to sexual abuse. He quoted a letter from the cardinal admitting: “Thirty-five years ago, when I was parish priest, I behaved in a reprehensible way with a 14-year-old girl.” Ricard, 78, was twice president of the bishops’ conference and has held several posts at the Vatican. He said he would “take a period of retreat and prayer”.

Moulins-Beaufort said that brought the total of bishops implicated in cases of sexual abuse to 11. “There are today six cases of bishops under investigation by justice authorities of our country and a canonical procedure. To them are added Mgrs Santier and Ricard. Two others no longer in office are under investigation by justice authorities of our country … A third has been reported to the public prosecutor without any response yet and has received from the Holy See measures restricting his ministry.” 

The bishops’ conference later added a “precision” to Moulins-Beaufort's total of accused bishops. “Of these six bishops, one has died. So there are 10 former bishops out of office: eight accused of abuse (including Bishop Santier and Cardinal Ricard) and two accused of non-denunciation (one convicted in 2018, one acquitted in 2020),” it said. 

Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort admitted in his opening speech that the bishops had “mixed feelings of anger, shame, helplessness, incomprehension and perhaps mistrust among us”. 

The Vatican has failed to send abuse experts to France, as the bishops requested a year ago, and now says they should come to Rome in small groups for consultations. 

During their discussions, some bishops asked what other skeletons remained in the closets of retired prelates, La Croix reported. “Rome does not measure the importance of communication,” a frustrated bishop told the Catholic daily.

“I no longer believe … in the capacity of the ecclesial institution to dispense justice in criminal matters,” wrote Fr Stéphane Joulain, who advises abuse victims.

Alix Huon, spokeswoman of a group organising small protests in several cities, said lay Catholics were already shocked by the abuse report last year. “Now, reactions are of a different order – there is outrage and despair.” Her group uses the hashtag #sortirlespoubelles (take out the garbage) to advertise its protests.

Sr Véronique Margron, president of the Conference of Male and Female Religious in France, said in a snap interview with La Vie:

“I feel ill. We don't quite know what to call things anymore. We can no longer find the words. I think of all these cumulative lies, of the victim... What is happening to us in the Church? Jean-Pierre Ricard was twice president of the French bishops’ conference, a cardinal, an elector of the Pope… We who try to listen to victims all the time, what are we for?”


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