A French court has ordered Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, to face trail in early January on charges of failing to denounce a sexually abusive priest, without the presence of co-defendant Vatican Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
The twice-delayed trial of Cardinal Barbarin, who denies wrongdoing in an abuse case tormenting his archdiocese, should go ahead on 7-9 January despite the Vatican's failure to respond to a summons issued to Cardinal Ladaria, it decided.
'La Parole Libérée', the victims' association that brought the charges in a private prosecution after judicial authorities closed an earlier case against Barbarin, said it preferred to delay the trial again so that all involved -– including the Spanish-born Ladaria – could be tried. Barbarin’s defence opposes any further delays.
Nadia Debbache, a lawyer for the victims, said the Vatican’s failure to acknowledge receipt of the summons amounted to obstruction of French justice. “There is clearly a will to drag things out and cover them up,” she said.
Barbarin faces the civil trial along with Cardinal Ladaria, two French bishops and a priest for failing to report a confessed serial abuser, Fr Bernard Preynat, to the police for abusing many Catholic boy scouts during the 1980s.
The cardinal has denied wrongdoing but admitted his reaction to abuse accusations he learned about in 2007 was “belated”. Preynat was not removed from ministry until 2015.
Lawyers for the victims say Ladaria had advised Barbarin by letter in 2015 to discipline Preynat but avoid public scandal. At the time, he was secretary of the CDF, the Vatican department that handles clerical sexual abuse cases.
Their trial was first delayed because the summons was not translated into Spanish and Italian and sent to Rome in time. It has since been submitted to the Vatican.
“This is turning into a soap opera. It’s enough!” Eymeric Molin, a lawyer for the defence, complained while arguing for the trial to go ahead without Ladaria.
Plaintiff François Devaux, head of the victims’ group, countered that the Vatican should not be able to hide behind legal technicalities. “If this takes another three years (to resolve), we’ll hang on,” he said.
The Barbarin affair has cast a shadow over the French church and newspapers are asking if he will quit. A petition for his resignation, posted online in late August after a priest who is a canon law judge for Lyon archdiocese urged him to step down, has gathered more than 100,000 signatures so far.
Two bishops have come to his defence, saying he has met the victims and tightened measures against abuse. But two others have taken discreet distance from him by stressing Pope Francis's letter to the faithful about clerical sexual abuse.
"The letter of Pope Francis convinced me that bishops could no longer manage this crisis," Strasbourg Archbishop Luc Ravel wrote in a pastoral letter entitled "Better late than never".
"We cannot invoke clauses about discretion or independence and ignore our duty to be aware of what's happening," he wrote, adding he decided to speak out after reading about the reported abuses in Pennsylvania.
In a letter to his priests, Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit outlined measures to fight against the clericalism Pope Francis blamed for many abuse cases.
Among his ideas are to house families and lay people among Paris seminarians to make future priests better acquainted with their problems. He also planned to engage more lay tutors for seminarians.