by Sylvie Corbett | The Associated Press
PARIS – Victims of abuse within France’s Catholic Church welcomed a historic turning point on Tuesday when a new report estimated that 330,000 children had been sexually abused in France over the past 70 years, leaving the country the world’s largest Provides the first account of the incident.
The figure includes abuses committed by some 3,000 priests and an undisclosed number of others involved in the church – according to the commission’s chairman that released the report, Catholic officials had “systematically” committed wrongdoing for decades, Jean – Mark Sauve.
The 2,500-page document was issued as the Catholic Church in France, like other countries, seeks to confront shameful secrets that had long been covered up. The victims have long welcomed the report and the head of the French bishops’ conference apologized to them.
The report said the 33,000 victims included an estimated 216,000 people who were abused by priests and other clerics, and the rest by church figures such as Scout leaders or camp counselors. The estimates are based on extensive research on child sexual abuse in the country by France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research.
The study authors estimated that 80% of church victims were boys, while a comprehensive study of sexual abuse found that 75% of the total victims were girls.
The independent commission urged the Church to take strong action, condemning its “faults” and “silence”. It also called on the Catholic Church to help compensate victims, especially in cases that are too old to be tried through French courts.
“We believe the church has a debt to the victims,” Sauve said.
François Devaux, head of the victims’ group La Parole Libre (The Liberated Word), said it was “a turning point in our history.” He denounced coverups that allowed “decades of mass crime”.
“But even worse, there was betrayal: betrayal of trust, betrayal of morality, betrayal of children, betrayal of innocence,” he said.
Martine, 73, and Mireille, 71, were sexually assaulted by a pastor when they were teenage girls in high school. Both declined to give their last names for privacy reasons, partly because some family members were not aware of the abuses.
“It brings up such terrifying thoughts,” Martin said. “For me, personally, I had to wait for my parents to die” because otherwise she said it was “not possible” to speak.
“I think every victim experienced it as if they were the only one[victim]and that’s part of the phenomenon that involves control and privacy,” Mirrill said. “We are in a state of submission… in mental captivity. So, we follow this person who suddenly takes power over us… we get caught in a spider’s web.”
Recognition of the mistake is essential, she said, and financial compensation is “really symbolic … it won’t fix things but it means it will cost them something as well.”
Olivier Savignac, head of the victims’ union Parlor et Reviver (Speak Out and Live Again), contributed to the investigation. He told the Associated Press that the high proportion of abuse victims per se was particularly “terrible for French society, for the Catholic Church”.
Savignac criticized the Church for treating such cases as individual anomalies rather than collective terror. He described being abused at the age of 13 by the director of a Catholic holiday camp in the south of France, who was accused of assaulting several other boys.
“I regarded this priest as someone who was good, a caring person who would not harm me,” Savignac said. “But when I found myself half naked on that bed and he was touching me I realized something was wrong… It’s like gangrene inside the victim’s body and victim’s psyche.”
Pujari was eventually found guilty of child sex abuse and sentenced in 2018 to three years in prison, including a one-year suspension.
The commission worked for 2 years, listening to victims and witnesses and studying church, court, police and news archives from the 1950s onwards. Sauve denounced the Church’s attitude until the early 2000s as “a deep, brutal indifference to the victims”.
“Sometimes church officials do not condone[sexual abuse]and even put children at risk for exposure to predators,” he emphasized.
Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the French Episcopal Conference, said the French bishops were “shocked” at the conclusion of the report.
He told the victims, “I want each of you to ask for forgiveness that day, forgive.”
“No one expected that such a high number (of victims) would come out of the survey and it is appropriately appalling and out of proportion to our perception on the ground,” he told the AP. “It’s much more than a shock. It’s a deep sense of shame,” said Versailles, head of an office that fought Bishop Luke Crepy pedophilia.
Crepi said the process was underway to put together the funds and create an independent commission to handle church compensation for the victims.
The report comes in the aftermath of a scandal involving pastor Bernard Prenot that shook the French Catholic Church. Last year, Preenat was convicted of sexually abusing minors and was given a five-year jail term. He admitted to abusing more than 75 boys for decades.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Pope Francis learned of the report’s findings “with sorrow”.
“His thoughts go first to the victims, deeply saddened for their wounds and gratitude for their courage to speak up,” he said.
Francis issued a new church law in May 2019 requiring all Catholic priests and nuns to report pastor sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities. In June, Francis said a process of reform was necessary and that every bishop should take responsibility for the “devastation” of the sexual abuse crisis.
The startling estimates of more than a quarter million potential victims have been released by other countries, who have also suffered nationally with church sexual abuse. But each country has examined the problem in different ways.
Rather than being limited to specific cases, the France report estimated the overall scale of the problem, extrapolating the number of victims based on studies of specific incidents and nationwide surveys.
Masha Macpherson contributed from Paris and Nicolas Vaux-Montagny from Lyon, France.