Report details some 330,000 victims since 1950.
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An independent commission has found extensive sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in France over the past seven decades, leading for calls for reform.
The Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (known by its French acronym CIASE) began its work three years ago at the behest of the Church in France. On Tuesday, it issued a 500-page report, accompanied by some 2,000 pages of supporting documents. It found an estimated 330,000 victims, of which an estimated 216,000 were victims abused by priests.
The Pillar pointed out that the high number is an estimate of potential victims. The commission, the website said, identified 2,700 abuse victims between 1950 and 2020 through interviews, and another 4,800 through archival research. “From there, it worked with a polling agency and the French Institute of Health and Medical Research to estimate a total number of potential clerical abuse victims between 1950 and 2020, which it placed at 216,000,” The Pillar said. “The commission estimated 3,200 clerical abusers committed those acts of abuse.”
CIASE said that two thirds of the abusers were priests and the remainder lay people who worked for the Church. About 80% of the victims were boys, mostly those between age 10 and 13.
“The Church failed to see or hear, failed to pick up on the weak signals, failed to take the rigorous measures that were necessary,” Jean-Marc Sauvé, president of the commission, said at a news conference in Paris on Tuesday. For years, the Church showed a “deep, total and even cruel indifference toward victims,” he said.
Sauvé indicated that the Church’s response to abuse began to change around the year 2000. “It has obviously evolved over the past 70 years,” he said. “But a major point is that, until the early 2000s, she showed a deep, utter and even cruel indifference to the victims. A change of course was initiated in the 2000s with zero tolerance, the condemnation of acts of child crime etc., but the announced policy was slow to be put in place.”
Just over half of the abuse cases occurred between 1950 and 1969, the report said. “They fell progressively between 1970 and 1990, a period when vocations to the priesthood and Church influence also dropped, and then hit a plateau that persists until today,” reported the Tablet.
The head of the French Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, commented at the press conference: “I express my shame, my fear, my determination to act with [victims of sexual abuse] so that the refusal to see, the refusal to hear, the desire to hide or hide the facts, the reluctance to publicly denounce them disappear from the attitudes of ecclesial authorities, priests and pastoral actors, of all the faithful.”
Calling the scale of the abuse “appalling,” Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort said that the voice of the victims “moves us deeply. Their number overwhelms us. It goes beyond what we might have imagined.”
The commission was set up in 2018 by the Bishops’ Conference of France and the Conference of Religious Men and Women of France, in response to a growing number of historical sexual abuse claims. It studied Church, court, and police files and media reports and heard from some 6,500 people — both victims and persons close to them.
The president of the Conference of Religious of France, Sister Véronique Margron, expressed her “infinite sorrow” and her “absolute shame” in the face of what she called “crimes against humanity.”
Twenty-two of the alleged crimes, which can still be pursued for legal action, have been forwarded to French prosecutors. Forty cases where the statute of limitations has expired but the alleged perpetrators are living, have been sent on to Church officials.
The commission made 45 recommendations for reform, including revising the Code of Canon Law, improved discernment and formation for seminarians, and setting up concrete recognition mechanisms such as public ceremonies, liturgical celebrations commemorating the suffering inflicted, memorials to the victims and their suffering, etc.
A modification to Canon Law that will come into force December 8, initiated by Pope Francis, will move sexual assault from the category of offenses against chastity to the category of attacks on the life and dignity of persons.
“It’s a first step,” said Sauvé, a high ranking French official and former vice-president of the Council of State.
But CIASE recommends going even further, asking that the Church define in canon law “all sexual offenses committed against a minor or a vulnerable person, highlighting the constituent elements of each, offenses and the corresponding penalties.” The objective is “to increase the readability of this law, to bring out the scale of seriousness of the breaches,” and “to harmonize the interpretation of the reference standards.”
The commission also recommended revisiting the question of the Seal of Confession, the obligation that a priest keep secret everything learned during the Sacrament of Penance. French civil law respects that, but CIASE argued that the the legal obligation to report sexual violence committed against minors or vulnerable persons takes precedence over the right to secrecy.
The report recommends that the Church resolve “the moral and even theological dilemmas likely to result from the conflict” between these two obligations.