PARIS – While the French Church does not always live harmoniously with its anti-clerical state and culture, it has been mostly spared the accusations of financial mismanagement and sexual abuse that the Church in other European countries has known.
Our régime of laïcité — a strict separation between Church and state, in which the public square is declared religion-free — has meant, for example, close state supervision over Catholic educational facilities.
Yet as a third case of clerical sex abuse came to light last week in the Archdiocese of Lyon, French Catholics have been wondering if they are not so different after all.
Proceedings opened Jan. 27 against Father Bernard Preynat, charged with “sexual aggression and rape of minors” between 1986 and 1991 at Lyon’s Saint-Luc parish, where he ran a large Catholic Scout group over two decades. (See a French op-ed in La Croix and a report in Le Monde.)
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the highly respected 65-year-old archbishop of Lyon, has stood accused of failing to act and of cover-up — a charge he vehemently denies.
The intense media coverage, giving vent to incomprehension and indignation, has made it hard to understand what precisely happened, and who stands accused today. Here are the facts.
What we know so far
Between 1986 and 1991, Father Bernard Preynat abused several Boy Scouts in a parish church near Lyon. In 1990, the diocesan authorities learned what was happening and removed Preynat from his parish, but he was not laicized. In 2014, a former Boy Scout, now aged 40, realizing that Preynat was still allowed contact with children, wrote to Barbarin — who had become archbishop of Lyon in 2002 — to complain. Barbarin opened an investigation, and suspended Preynat from active ministry, preventing him from acting as a priest, in August 2015.
In 1989, another priest of the diocese engaged in a sexual relationship with a boy of 14, possibly believing him to be adult. When the story broke last year, the priest was immediately removed and a civil case opened against him. In the same parish district, a third priest, Jérôme Billioud, has been charged with abusing a boy of 16, “Pierre,” now a senior civil servant in Paris.
Last week it was revealed that yet another Lyon priest had served 1 1/2 years in prison in 2007, prior to joining the diocese, for molestation of a group of young men then aged 19-34 who were under his charge. Strictly speaking, this is not a case of pedophilia, although the abuse of the young men’s trust by the priest and the breach of his vows are scandal enough.
The first two cases occurred 20 years before Barbarin became archbishop of Lyon. The Billioud affair is said to have taken everybody – including the local Church – by surprise.
The final case involved the nearby diocese of Montpellier and the priest, who was transferred to Lyon, has been undergoing medical and psychological treatment and is prevented from contact with young adults.
Yet calls for the cardinal to resign have been intense — both from victim groups and from Manuel Valls, the prime minister, who has said the cardinal should “face up to his responsibility.”
Why Cardinal Barbarin is under the spotlight
The controversy has been particularly intense because of the cardinal’s significance in the French Church. Barbarin is “Primate of the Gauls,” an honorific title which recognizes the particular place of Lyon as the birthplace of Christianity in our country.
The role comes with a heavy public responsibility. Since 2002, Barbarin has been one of the most vocal, active, and atypical bishops in France, stepping out where others dare to tread. In December 2014, for example, he made a surprise trip to the ISIS-besieged city of Erbil in Iraq and launched a program twinning Lyon with Mosul.
Barbarin’s high media profile is partly why there is general incredulity that he could have covered up acts of abuse. But the accusation does not stand. In both 2006 and 2014, Barbarin took immediate action as soon as he heard of the accusations, sacking the incriminated priests, keeping them under strict surveillance, and collaborating with the police, as he has again said he will do. The police have confirmed this.
The Preynat affair is trickier, partly because the abuse happened so long ago, and because, after the priest was first suspended in 1991, no other accusations emerged. The cardinal says that when he learned about his past in 2007 or 2008, he confronted the priest and believed his promise that nothing had happened since his suspension.
But last year, when the cardinal was first approached by a survivor, he told him to write his story and send the letter to Rome, to have the pope’s opinion on such a delicate case. His trust in Preynat could well be, as the cardinal himself admits, an error of judgement, but it cannot be likened to knowingly covering the actions of an active criminal.
Should Barbarin resign?
Those calling for Barbarin to step down see it as a way of expressing contrition for his mistakes. But resigning means admitting to some form of responsibility, direct or indirect, as Cardinal Keith O’Brien did when he stood down in 2013. But Barbarin has not been found guilty of any crime, denies the charges, and is openly pressing for investigation of the abuse and the Church’s handling of it.
The accusations of cover-up need to be calmly and precisely investigated, with the full collaboration of ecclesiastical and judicial authorities, and the lessons learned.
Barbarin’s resignation would help no one. He is well-placed to help improve current guidelines and laws where these are powerless to help the victims. Because guilt and distress shame survivors into silence for years, they often only speak out after the statutory limitation in civil law has expired (in France, a perpetrator cannot be accused once his victim turns 38). In legal terms, it means they cannot obtain civil justice.
Recognizing this fact, the cardinal has asked the Vatican to think about stricter procedures in Church law in such cases, which would allow Church law to deliver justice where civil law cannot. He has suggested, for example, reviewing existing canon law to enable priests to be punished when civil law is powerless to act against them.
The road to forgiveness
The cardinal, who is famous in Lyon for walking around his cathedral church every Friday before evening Mass so that people can come talk to him, has repeated that he is determined to do everything in his power to support the victims and help them break the silence.
“All our thoughts go to the victims; we want them to be at the heart of our preoccupations, to be accompanied properly,” said Monsignor Ribaud-Dumas, spokesman for the French bishops’ conference. “They must be listened to.”
Truth is at the heart of the matter. True forgiveness can come only if the truth about the past comes out, to prevent such abuse ever happening again, and to enable the victims to find peace. “My only concern is to make sure such evil never repeats itself,” Barbarin said at the end of his press conference this week.
Individual priests have committed terrible actions in the past and harmed people, sometimes beyond repair. But even if the abuse happened years ago and the number of victims remains vague, the pain and its effects endure.
There is no doubt where the Church in France now stands. As the well-known media priest, Father Pierre-Hervé Grosjean, said on TV last week, he was on the side of the victims and never in defense of an institution.
Now it is ordinary French Catholics, the 45 million baptized lay people, who must confront the tragedy and turn their first thoughts to the victims. It is not often that the institutional Church leads the way in engaging with our society. Barbarin is pledged to the truth: so must we be.
This piece was originally published by Catholic Voices. The author, Amicie Pelissie du Rausas, is coordinator of a Catholic Voices group now beginning in France known as CathoVoice.