LYON, France — France’s most important church sex abuse trial to date is likely to end in acquittal for a cardinal and other senior Catholic officials accused of protecting a pedophile priest, despite years of efforts by his victims to seek justice.
Father Bernard Preynat confessed to abusing Boy Scouts, and his victims say church hierarchy covered up for him for years, allowing him to work with children right up until his 2015 retirement.
But by the time the cover-up trial reached court in Lyon this week, the statute of limitations had expired on some charges. And even the prosecutor argued Wednesday against convicting Cardinal Philippe Barbarin and other church officials, saying there were no grounds to prove legal wrongdoing.
Victims’ lawyers seemed to have little hope for a conviction, despite an emotional trial in which grown men recounted their childhood fear and shame after alleged abuse by a respected priest.
“That was no surprise,” lawyer Yves Sauvayre said after the prosecutor’s unusual request.
Still, victims are hoping the trial leads to a broader public reckoning with clergy sex abuse in France, which is predominantly Catholic.
The trial ends Thursday, and then it’s up to the judge to decide what to do. The verdict is expected at a later date, and Barbarin faces up to three years in prison and over $51,000 in fines if convicted.
The priest himself is going on trial separately for sexual violence against multiple children. So far, 13 victims are involved in that case, but he is accused of having abused as many as 70 children. Preynat hasn’t publicly spoken about the allegations against him, but he has written letters to some families confessing to abuse in the 1970s and 80s.
This week’s trial in Lyon was more significant, however, because it involved some of France’s most powerful Catholic leaders — and even reached the Vatican. The Vatican’s top official for sex abuse cases, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, was among the accused, but avoided appearing in court because of diplomatic immunity.
Saying that she “supports no one” in the case, Prosecutor Charlotte Trabaut argued that the statute of limitations had expired on charges of failing to help a person in danger, and that there wasn’t enough proof to convict church officials on the charge of failing to report sexual violence against a minor.
The prosecutor’s office had recommended in 2016 that the case be dropped for those same reasons. But victims used a special procedure to take the case to court anyway.
Barbarin, 68, testified that he was unjustly accused, saying, “I don’t see what I am guilty of.”
The Lyon diocese decided to keep Preynat on as a priest even after parents of one Boy Scout wrote a letter to the then-cardinal in 1991 describing abuse. The diocese took him away from the Boy Scouts and moved him to a different parish.
The victims accused Barbarin, who became archbishop of Lyon in 2002, of having allowed Preynat to continue serving as a priest in contact with children, despite years of rumors about his actions.
The child who told his parents about the abuse, Francois Devaux, is now 38, a married father of three. Devaux and another former Boy Scout, Alexandre Hezez, created an association to find other alleged victims.
Among them was Christian Burdet, now 53.
In testimony punctuated by poignant pauses, Burdet said he was forced to go in his pajamas to Preynat’s tent in a scout camp in the late 1970s. “Preynat came often to the house, he had his cover, he was part of the family,” he said.
“I believe in God, but I no longer believe in these men of the church,” Burdet said. “I have the sense that many people knew … I would have liked to know why such a pervert remained so long in the church circuit.”
“I’m not here in a spirit of revenge,” he insisted. “I’m here to express the facts, and for the men of the church to hear what I have to say.”
The Associated Press doesn’t typically identify people alleging sexual assault, but in this case they came forward publicly hoping to encourage others to speak out.
Barbarin said he questioned the priest in 2010 and “asked if the rumors were true. He confirmed numerous facts, but swore to me that it hadn’t happened since 1990. I stick to what he told me.”
Barbarin said he sought advice from the Vatican, and “did exactly what Rome asked me to do.”
The other defendants held a similar line. At first, Barbarin and the other five defendants refused to respond to any of the judge’s questions, drawing the judge’s ire.
The case is being watched closely by the Vatican. Pope Francis, whose blind spot on clergy sex abuse has threatened his legacy and thrown the Catholic hierarchy into a credibility crisis, has praised Barbarin as “brave” and said French justice should take its course.
Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.