The president of the French conference of bishops, Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, has expressed his “shame and horror” at the staggering scale of clerical abuse revealed by a 2,500-page report released on Tuesday.
Jean-Marc Sauvé, president of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, known by the French acronym Ciase, said that 216,000 children had been sexually abused by clergy since 1950, a much higher figure than earlier estimated. When abuse committed by lay persons in religious settings such as schools and summer camps was factored in, the total rose to 330,000, he said.
Four-fifths of the victims were boys, most between the ages of 10 and 13. Mr Sauvé said that 60 per cent of the men and women who experienced sexual abuse in childhood subsequently encountered emotional or sexual difficulties.
The number of clerical predators in France since 1950 is estimated at between 2,900 and 3,200, says the report, which is the result of nearly three years of investigation.
Msgr de Moulins-Beaufort received the report directly from Mr Sauvé at a press conference that was broadcast live on YouTube and on the Catholic television channel KTO. The bishop said the testimony and number of victims were overwhelming, “beyond what we could have imagined … My wish this day is to ask forgiveness from each and every one of you”. French bishops are to respond formally to the report next month.
Mr Sauvé said the green-bound volumes were “a heavy burden, literally and figuratively”. Sr Véronique Margron, president of the Corref grouping of religious orders, which co-commissioned the report with the bishops’ conference, spoke of “a physical shame, absolute shame … before massive crimes committed in my church”.
A few hours after the report was released, the Vatican said Pope Francis “learned of its contents with pain” and expressed “immense grief” for the wounds of the victims and “gratitude for their courage” in coming forward. Matteo Bruni, the director of the Holy See press office, said the pope expected the French church, “having become aware of this horrible reality”, to “take the path of redemption.”
François Devaux, a co-founder of La parole libérée (Speech freed), a group of victims of the paedophile priest Bernard Preynat, was the first victim interviewed by Ciase. He delivered an angry diatribe against Catholic authorities at Tuesday’s presentation.
“You must pay for all these crimes,” Mr Devaux said. “There were atrocious crimes and offences, the betrayal of confidence, of morality, of childhood, innocence and the Gospel. There was cowardice, weakness, and dissimulation… I have no doubt about what the report will reveal. You, members of the commission, have been to hell and back. You have explored the darkest, most abject details … in what resembles a mass grave of the shredded souls of the church.”
The report recounts the evolution of the church’s attitude towards paedophilia in its ranks. In the 1950s and 1960s, when more than half the crimes took place, church officials sought “to protect it from scandal” and “asked the victims to remain silent”. What happened to them was “hidden”. It was not until the 1990s that the church timidly began “to take account of the existence of victims” whom it began to “recognise” in the 2010s.
The report condemns the “inadequate” response of the church and demands that it recognise its responsibility for “massive” and “systemic” abuse. “Outside family circles, the Catholic church is the milieu with the highest rate of sexual abuse,” it notes.
Last March, the bishops’ conference advocated “contributions” to the victims of clerical abuse, which would be financed by the faithful. They avoided using the words “compensation” or “reparations”.
The report states clearly that victims must be compensated individually through an independent body outside the church, and that the funds must come from French Catholic church holdings.
Clerical abuse began declining from the 1970s and had levelled off, Mr Sauvé said. But the diminution was due to lower numbers of priests and decreased attendance of church and related institutions. “We must do away with the idea that sexual abuse in the Catholic church has been completely eradicated and that the problem is behind us. The problem continues.”