A bombshell report on sex abuse left France ‘flabbergasted.’ Yet most French Catholics still believe there is hope for reform
The French church is beginning to experience a degree of healing weeks after the release of an investigation into seven decades of the abuse of children by clergy. That is the assessment of Patrick Goujon, S.J., a professor at the Centre Sèvres (a Jesuit pre-collegiate school in Paris) and chief editor of Journal Recherches de Sciences Religieuse.
A victim himself of sexual assault by a priest, Father Goujon has been active with France’s conference of major superiors in disseminating the findings of the 2,500-page report, released in October after more than two years of research and investigation by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church. According to the report, as many as 330,000 children had been abused by priests, religious and laypeople at church institutions in France since the 1950s.
A church in denial
The report landed on French Catholics like a bomb, Father Goujon said. French bishops had never considered sexual abuse a serious problem.
“We have been in denial for 20 years,” Father Goujon said. “The bishops said that [that kind of abuse] could never happen here.”
The report landed on French Catholics like a bomb. French bishops had never considered sexual abuse a serious problem.
“The country was flabbergasted,” Father Goujon said. But in the wake of the report, French media refrained from piling on in criticism of the church. He believes that because the bishops themselves had asked for the investigation, the Catholic public perceived the commission’s findings and recommendations “as an opportunity for reform.”
According to Father Goujon, a survey in October 2021 by the French Catholic newspaper La Croix showed that 85 percent of Catholics were saddened by the revelations of abuse, but they also believed the church would respond seriously to the problem.
“They were saying, ‘We think our church is capable of self-renewal,’” he said.
But even as most French Catholics found cause for optimism, eight members of the Catholic Academy of France, a lay-led association of leading French intellectuals and academics, spoke out against the report, criticizing its methodology and challenging its estimate of the number of victims as “disproportionate.” They described the report as an inaccurate narrative of systemic abuse in the church that would lay “the groundwork for proposals to bring down the institutional church.”
The group also challenged the independence of the church-sponsored commission that conducted the investigation, disagreeing that an entity outside the church should be empowered to suggest how the church could reform itself. The inquiry had concluded with 45 recommendations, including suggestions for changes in priestly formation.
The bishops respond
Several members of the 250-member academy resigned because of their colleagues’ attempt to undermine the report’s findings, including the head of the French bishops’ conference, Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, and Jean-Marc Sauve, head of the commission that compiled the report. The French bishops also stood their ground against the report’s critics in the academy, affirming that they had accepted its findings, including the statement that a systemic institutional failure had contributed to the crisis.
“We have been in denial for 20 years. The bishops said that [that kind of abuse] could never happen” in France.
The bishops’ defense of the report proved another powerful moment of healing, Father Goujon said.
It was an unlikely outcome considering the clear unwillingness in the recent past of the French bishops to confront the problem of historic abuse by priests. In 2000, the bishops composed a letter read at Sunday Masses across France that explained how allegations of abuse should be handled, Father Goujon remembered. That was the last collective, public action by the bishops on the problem for almost two decades, even as in nations like the United States, Ireland, Germany and Australia, the church began to confront the crisis head on.
But scandal erupted in Lyon in 2015 when the case of the former Rev. Bernard Preynat became known. Mr. Preynat, who has been laicized, has been connected to 85 victims. He has admitted to abusing children left in his care over decades. His bishop, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, became aware of the abuse in the early 2010s. He removed Mr. Preynat from ministry in 2014 but never informed civil authorities of allegations against him. Mr. Preynat was convicted in a Lyon court in 2020.
Cardinal Barbarin was tried for covering up the abuse but was acquitted. He later resigned.
“We will never know what happened, if he covered up or not,” Father Goujon said.
The case revealed that serial sexual abuse and cover-up did in fact occur in France and led to calls by Catholics for further investigation. After sustained media pressure from victims’ associations, the bishops and the French conference of major superiors of religious orders agreed to jointly fund an independent commission to investigate historic abuse cases. That process began in 2019.
Two years later, as the commission’s report left the country reeling, Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort offered a public apology. But French Catholics demanded more. According to Father Goujon, other bishops disappointed the faithful with initial public statements that suggested they did not understand how to make sense of the report and take responsibility for its findings.
Scandal erupted in Lyon in 2015 when the case of the former Rev. Bernard Preynat became known. Mr. Preynat, has been laicized, has been connected to 85 victims.
But over ensuing weeks French bishops became more united on a path forward for the church.
At the beginning of November, the bishops met in Lourdes. At the end of that conference, they addressed the country, kneeling together in a sign of penance. The bishops also unveiled a statue of a weeping child, and a victim of clergy abuse spoke. They promised a serious program of reform and renewal going forward.
“We did it above all because we felt God’s gaze on us, because we felt disgust and fear rise up in us as we realized what so many people had experienced and were experiencing in terms of suffering, even though they had the right to receive the light, the consolation, the hope of God,” Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort said.
The statement from Lourdes was deeply significant, according to Father Goujon, as “the first major step was real recognition of church responsibility” and at Lourdes the bishops as a body publically and deliberately took responsibility for systemic abuse in the church.
The church in France still has work to do, from establishing formulas for compensation and achieving reconciliation with abuse survivors to carrying out its promised program of renewal. It is believed that many victims have not yet come forward.
But the bishops have taken concrete steps toward change. Father Goujon said that some dioceses have already started to liquidate assets to create reserves to compensate victims. On Jan. 25, the board appointed to manage a victim compensation fund announced that it had already collected 20 million euros from properties sold by dioceses, individual donations from bishops and contributions from dioceses. An initial five million euros will be set aside for compensation claims being studied by the independent commission the bishops established last year.
Working with an independent commission has also demonstrated that collaborating with outside organizations is beneficial to the church.
“It’s a first step. The church has followed through on its commitment,” the president of the compensation fund, Gilles Vermot-Desroches, told French media.
In Lourdes, the bishops also formed working groups to work out a more rigorous process for handling abuse. They will report back in January, according to Father Goujon. An ongoing evaluation of how dioceses have or have not been following protocols put in place by the church in France in 2000 has also begun.
The church also came to a special agreement with the country’s civil prosecutor. All accusations of abuse will be sent to the civil authorities for investigation, as one of the findings of the report was that small dioceses did not have the resources to conduct an effective investigation of abuse allegations, according to Father Goujon.
Working with an independent commission has also demonstrated that collaborating with outside organizations is beneficial to the church. “It has underlined that in its ordinary procedures, the church needs to be open to those outside of it, which is something new,” Father Goujon said. Its experience with the abuse crisis, he said, has shown the church in France “how to combat other abuses.”
In addition to addressing sexual abuse, the report shed light on ways to improve church governance and prevent other offenses by clerics like spiritual abuses by religious superiors or authoritarian tendencies among pastors and bishops.