Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, was questioned on Wednesday at a police family protection brigade about a diocesan priest who sexually abused minors for several decades but was not reported to civil authorities and only removed from ministry last year.
Emerging after 10 hours of interrogation, his lawyer Jean-Félix Luciani said the cardinal had wanted to give his version of the facts. “His name has been dragged in the mud for quite some time, so he wanted to respond,” he said.
There was no immediate comment from the cardinal, but the archdiocese released a statement saying: "He provided the investigators with all the information he had. He will continue to cooperate with the judicial authorities in complete transparency."
Luciani said Barbarin was asked about a complaint by six victims of Fr Bernard Preynat that he allegedly did not report after hearing of the accusations against the priest in 2007 or 2008 and meeting a self-described victim in 2014.
The cardinal has said he “never covered up the slightest case of paedophilia” but admitted at a meeting of diocesan clergy in late April that he had made “mistakes in the management and appointment of certain priests”.
A victims support group has claimed that at least 60 people have reported being abused by Fr Preynat, who was placed under judicial investigation in January and, according to the Paris daily Le Monde, has told police he began abusing minors in the late 1970s.
The cardinal has also been named in a second complaint for “non-denunciation” in a second case of alleged abuse but was not questioned about this on Wednesday.
The scandal in Lyon has prompted dozens of people to come forward around France claiming to be unreported victims of abuse and pressured the French Church to agree to examine all past complaints, even those that did not lead to a formal legal procedure.
Another church laywer Andre Soulier stressed that the cardinal was questioned as a witness, meaning he will not now face “any obligation to appear in court, any opening of a judicial investigation or any indictment”.
But the public prosecutor must still decide whether to drop the case, appoint a magistrate to investigte further or send it to trial.
Fr Preynat is under investigation only for alleged abuse cases between 1986 and 1991. The Lyon appeals court is due to rule on Friday whether the statute of limitations should be lifted on alleged earlier cases of abuse.