A bombshell report which claimed French priests, and teachers and lay workers sexually abused a third of a million children since 1950 represented a “moment of shame” for the Catholic Church, the Pope has said.
At his weekly general audience, Pope Francis told French pilgrims that he wished “to express to the victims my sadness and grief at the trauma they have suffered”.
The Holy Father also expressed his own personal shame “at the Church’s too long failure” to place victims at the centre of its concerns, and urged the French Bishops and religious superiors “to continue to make every effort so that similar tragedies will not be repeated”.
The Pope made his remarks after the publication of a damning report by CIASE, a commission set up in 2018 to investigate clerical abuse in the Catholic Church in France.
The final 2,500 page report published on Tuesday revealed that at least 330,000 were sexually assaulted by up to 3,200 priests and lay workers in the last 70 years.
About 216,000 children – mostly boys between 10 and 13 years – were abused specifically by members of the clergy, the inquiry found.
It also heard evidence from people who testified that nuns also sexually abused boys and girls in their care
French actor Laurent Martinez told Sky News that he had been raped by a priest at the age of eight.
At a press conference, commission chief Jean-Marc Sauvé (pictured) said child abuse in the French Church was a “massive phenomenon” hidden under a “veil of silence”.
“There was a whole pile of negligence, of deficiency, of silence, an institutional cover-up,” he said.
Until the last two decades, the French Church had demonstrated only a “deep, total and even cruel indifference” towards victims, he continued.
“The victims are not believed, are not listened to,” he added. “When they are listened to, they are considered to have perhaps contributed to what they had happen to them.”
The report was based on records held in relation to 115,000 priests as well as court and police archives and interviews with 6,500 sexual abuse survivors.
Mr Sauvé, a senior civil servant, said his commission had already passed evidence to prosecutors in 22 cases as some of the allegations were against Church figures who are still living.
Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris said that the French bishops commissioned the investigation “in order to get the truth because we absolutely owe it to the victims and to all the faithful”.
“We have discovered this truth with all of you,” he said in a statement posted on the website of the Archdiocese of Paris.
“It is far beyond what we thought we knew, it is frightening,” he said.
Archbishop Aupetite said that although the Church had strived for several years to respond seriously to “this terrible tragedy seriously” it was clear “that we still have a long way to go to welcome the suffering of the victims, to accompany them in their reconstruction, and to make our common home safer”.
“The analysis of the causes outlined in Mr Sauvé’s report requires us to look closely at the factors that allowed such abuses to occur,” he said. “We will need all of you to enlighten us and help us in the necessary reforms.
He added: “Please know that I share your deep sadness at these terrible revelations. I invite you to pray for the victims whose lives have been shattered. I also ask you to pray for all the priests, deacons and laity that they may continue to work with dedication. We are all deeply saddened.”
Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Rheims, president of the French bishops’ conference, welcomed the report in a joint statement with Dominican Sister Véronique Margron, president of the Conference of Religious of France, and thanked Mr Sauvé for his work.
They said they were “shamed and outraged” by his discoveries and promised to study all of his recommendations.
Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort then took to Twitter to release a series of messages in which he criticized both abusive priests and the negligence of the Church.
“I am deeply hurt and humiliated by the inability of the Church, its authorities, its communities, to perceive the suffering of the victims and to understand the threat posed by this or that priest, this or that religious,” he said.
“The commitment of all of us to celibacy is a choice of love, delicacy, respect, humility,” he tweeted. “That some among us have been able to or may divert their ministry to the service of their impulses overwhelms us, tears at our hearts.”
He continued: “I would like, in the name of the bishops, to say to the priests, religious men and women, how much we count on them to receive this report and to draw from it with courage and strength to commit themselves even more justly. The vast majority of them are good servants.
“To the people who have been victims of such acts by priests, religious men and women, and others in the Church, I express my shame, my horror,” he added.
“That so many lives of children and young people could have been damaged without almost anything being spotted, denounced, accompanied, cared for, is properly unbearable.”
As part of its work, the inquiry investigated “the mechanisms, notably institutional and cultural ones” within the Catholic Church which allowed paedophiles to operate. It concluded with 45 recommendations.
The first of the 45 recommendations directly addresses the urgent question of safeguarding and demands that any person who has committed violent or sexual offenses against children have no access to minors. It also recommends mandatory checks of criminal records of clergy and church workers with access to children and suggests that the church sets up a hotline for people to report abuse.
The recommendations also suggest a review of the traditional discipline of priestly celibacy to allow the ordination of married men, and they demand that priests break the seal of confession and inform police of sexual offences against children or vulnerable people that are reported to them by penitents.
One recommendation also expresses the view that diocesan bishops should divest much of their authority to permit a more democratic and synodal governance of the local church.
The commission says the bishops need to closely examine the “concentration of the powers of order and of governance in the hands of the same person which leads to an insistence on the rigorous exercise of power”.
One of the most notorious cases of clerical sex abuse in France involved Bernard Preynat, a laicised priest who in 2020 was sent to jail for five years for abusing boy scouts aged between seven and 14 between 1971 and 1991.
He admitted to the sexual assault of up to two boys nearly every weekend and as many as four or five a week when away camping.
The scandal led to the criminal trial and resignation of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the former Archbishop of Lyon, because he had allowed Preynat to continue to serve as a priest between 2010 and 2015 after learning of the abuse allegations against him.
Cardinal Barbarin said he had been lenient because he had received assurances from Preynat that he had assaulted no-one since 1991.
The cardinal was given a six-month suspended sentence in March 2019 for failing to report the abuse but was cleared of criminal liability on appeal.
Five weeks later Pope Francis accepted the early resignation of the 69-year-old cardinal, which had been submitted voluntarily.
(Photo by Thomas COEX / various sources / AFP) (Photo by THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images)
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