The French Bishops’ Conference spokesman has expressed his profound shame after a television documentary accused 25 bishops — five of them still in office — of shielding 32 priests guilty of sexual abuse from justice and moving them around France and other countries to keep their past out of the spotlight.
Conference president Archbishop Georges Pontier disputed some details of the broadcast on France 2 public television but admitted past errors and insisted the Church now put the interests of abuse victims first.
The 21 March broadcast by the news magazine Cash Investigation added new details to the debate about clerical sexual abuse in France, where the bishops’ conference recently said nine priests and deacons were in prison and 26 under investigation for sexual abuse.
Based on a year-long inquiry with the news website Mediapart, it examined abuse cases going back to the 1960s and said half of the 32 abusers were active after 2000, the year when the French bishops first agreed to tighten their anti-paedophilia guidelines.
The resulting database listed 339 victims and showed 228 of them had been under 15 and only 165 cases were reported to civil authorities. The programme also tracked the transfer of alleged abusers within France and abroad, especially to posts in Africa.
“I feel a profound sense of shame, humility and determination, because I am well aware that we have made mistakes,” bishops’ conference spokesman Mgr Olivier Ribadeau Dumas told AFP news agency.
Archbishop Pontier insisted the broadcast highlighted errors of the past but told La Provence newspaper: “We have evolved, even if this has not be fast enough.”
The accused bishops still in office are Bishop Marc Aillet (Bayonne), Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (Lyon), Archbishop Jean-Luc Bouilleret (Besançon), Bishop Yves Le Saux (Le Mans) and Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). Fellay is a French-speaking Swiss whose traditionalist movement is strong in France.
A reporter confronted Cardinal Barbarin at a church ceremony asking about a still unfolding abuse scandal there, to which the Lyon archbishop responded with a vague statement. Bouilleret has denied shielding abusive priests.
Another journalist shouted to Pope Francis as he walked to a weekly audience in St Peter’s Square, asking whether he intervened in a failed appeal against a 15-year sentence for abusive priest Fr Julio Grassi. “Your Holiness, in the Grassi case, did you try to influence Argentine justice?” she asked. The Pope stopped, listened, frowned and shook his head, saying “nada” (not at all). Grassi was sentenced in 2009 to 15 years in prison for abusing boys. The programme alleged that then Cardinal Bergoglio ordered a prolonged investigation that might support Grassi’s appeal.
French bishops’ conference officials accused Cash Investigation of biased reporting, citing its aggressive methods as the reason for declining to send a spokesman to a televised debate that followed the broadcast.
Fr Stéphane Joulain, a psychotherapist interviewed in the broadcast, told the daily La Croix the French Church must be more active and transparent in fighting against paedophilia.
“It’s not easy to believe the bishops when they proclaim their determination (to combat abuse) because they told us the same thing in 2000,” he said. “Nobody has held them to account in the meantime.”
PICTURE: A reporter has confronted Cardinal Barbarin, pictured leading the Assumption mass at the Basilique de Fourviere in Lyon.