A new report has exposed the scale of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in France.
Written by an independent commission led by a former judge, the report estimated that at least 3,000 priests (around 3% of the country’s total) had abused minors, with around 216,000 children thought to have been victimised.
France itself has been reckoning with the issue of abuse in the Catholic Church for over twenty years, since Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux was convicted in a civil court of covering up for an abusive.
Since then there has been a slow build-up of pressure as new cases came to light, abuse victims bravely spoke out, and more thorough-going examinations of abuse appeared in other Catholic countries.
Pressure came to a head in 2016 when the victims’ association La Parole Liberée accused successive Lyon archbishops of covering up for Father Bernard Preynat, a serial abuser.
Preynat was defrocked and sentenced to five years in prison, forcing the resignation of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin and the appointment of the independent commission in 2018 by a bishops’ conference.
The report is moderate in its recommendations, advocating an increased role for lay members of the Church, changes in the responsibilities of priests and bishops, such as a responsibility on priests who learn of abuse through confession to report predators to the police and the separation of religious and administrative roles, as well as reforms to the Church’s own legal system.
It shies away, however, from far-reaching reforms demanded by some campaigners such as the ordination of women as priests or the abolition of clerical celibacy.
The 485-page report is sadly not a surprise. It comes after similar studies in Australia, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States which found similar, or even worse, levels of abuse in the Church.
In Ireland in 2017, it was revealed that 796 babies and young children were “indecently buried in a defunct sewage system” in the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, between 1925 and 1961.
The home, run by a Catholic religious order of nuns, received unmarried pregnant women to give birth. The women were forcibly separated from their children, and the children raised by nuns until they could be adopted.
In January 2021, a report commissioned by the Northern Ireland Assembly found that 10,500 women went through mother-and-baby homes in the North between 1922 and 1990, with 3,000 were imprisoned and forced to carry out unpaid labour in Magdalene laundries.
Last summer, the Cowessess First Nation, an indigenous nation in Canada, found 751 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan. Weeks before, the remains of 215 children were found at a similar residential school in British Columbia.
The schools were two of more than 130 compulsory schools funded by the Canadian government and run by the Catholic Church as part of moves to forcibly assimilate indigenous youth in the 19th and 20th centuries.
According to former Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Murray Sinclair, an estimated 6,000 children died while attending the Canadian residential schools, and children were often housed in poorly built, badly heated and unsanitary facilities.
The Church has long been a corrupt, authoritarian and unaccountable institution, operating with a presumption of divine sanction.
It is no wonder that abusive and violent practices and behaviour flourished in such an environment.