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Secular experts to advise French Church on handling of abuse cases

French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon (AP)

The French Catholic Church has decided to set up a new independent commission made up of secular experts in charge of advising bishops and helping them handle the sensitive cases of child sex abuses by priests.

Mgr Georges Pontier, the chief of France’s bishops, announced on Tuesday a series of measures to fight paedophilia inside the French Church, amid growing concerns over newly-revealed child sex abuse cases, especially in the Lyon diocese run by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin.

Pontier said the national secular expert commission, chaired by a “qualified lay personality” yet to be chosen, will consist of former magistrates, doctors, psychologists, educators or parents.

“The commission will be in place before the summer of 2016,” said Pontier, who met with Pope Francis in Rome last week.

The measures detailed by Pontier include a new website dedicated to victims of priest abuse and plans to set up local, specialised units in charge of greeting, listening and assisting victims in every French diocese and the 14 Church districts in France.

Bertrand Virieux, 44, co-founder of a victim association and himself a victim of a priest when he was a child, suggested the measures were not enough. “We need strong decisions. And this doesn’t necessarily mean units specialised in listening to victims, but rather an immediate reporting to the prosecutor,” he said in an interview with iTele channel.

Pontier said the French Church was committed to cooperating with judicial authorities in ongoing investigations against priests suspected of child sex abuse.

Complaints have been filed against Church officials in the Lyon diocese for not reporting child sex abuse cases they had been aware for years to judicial authorities. Among those targeted by the complaints was Cardinal Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon and one of the highest ranking Church officials in France.

Pontier declined to comment on the specific case of Cardinal Barbarin, saying the French courts, not the French Church, will have to say whether the cardinal or other local Church officials “malfunctioned” in handling paedophilia cases.