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French Catholic Church Personnel Sexually Abused 330,000 Minors

French Catholic Church Personnel Sexually Abused 330,000 Minors, Probe Finds
Some 3,000 priests and members of religious orders sexually abused children in France since 1950, according to a new report

A new report called on French church authorities to implement reforms, including better internal safeguards, supervision and training for priests.
By Francis X. Rocca and Sam Schechner
Updated Oct. 5, 2021 8:14 am ET

An investigation of the Catholic Church in France found that priests, church employees and volunteers sexually abused approximately 330,000 minors since 1950.

The finding appears in a voluminous report published Tuesday, the latest in a series of abuse studies that have shaken the Catholic Church in the U.S. and other countries over recent years.

The number of victims in the French report is greater by an order of magnitude than previous estimates in France and other countries. Counting only abuse by clergy and members of religious orders, the report estimates the number of victims at 216,000.

Archival research and a call for testimony also found roughly 3,000 priests and male members of religious orders sexually abused minors since 1950, according to the report.


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The numbers “are more than worrying. They are overwhelming,” said Jean-Marc Sauvé, a prominent jurist who led the investigation. “They call for very strong measures.”

Mr. Sauvé noted that the estimated number of victims, based on a large survey, as well as contacts with thousands of victims, had a margin of error of 50,000.

The French investigators called on church authorities to implement reforms, including better internal safeguards, supervision and training for priests. The report also calls for rethinking the theology of the clergy, suggesting that an exaggerated deference to priests made it easier for them to abuse minors.

Mr. Sauvé was asked to set up the panel that conducted the investigation in 2018 by the French Bishops Conference and the National Conference of Religious Orders. Other members of the commission included experts in medicine, law and theology.

“In the face of so many broken and destroyed lives, we are ashamed and outraged,” the conferences said in a joint statement. “We know there is still a long road before we can hope to deserve the forgiveness of the victims.”

The Vatican said in a statement that Pope Francis had been pained by the contents of the report and that “his thoughts go first of all to the victims, with great sorrow for their wounds and gratitude for their courage” in reporting abuse.

“We are seeing the scale of the crimes they have committed,” said François Devaux, co-founder of an abuse victims’ group in France, in an interview. He hailed the report as “a turning point in our history.”

In Tuesday’s report, investigators concluded that sexual abuse of minors in the church was less common than among family and friends but more so than in schools, camps and sports.

Mr. Sauvé said that in their contact with victims, investigators found that 60% still encountered strong or very strong disruption in their emotional and sex lives.

“We must leave behind this idea that the problem is behind us. It continues,” Mr. Sauvé said.

The French report is the latest of a series of local and national inquiries into clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church since the crisis erupted in 2002 with revelations of longstanding abuse and coverup in Boston. Since then, studies by private groups or government bodies have indicated the extent of the church’s crisis in the U.S., Ireland, Australia, Germany and the U.K.

Mr. Sauvé expressed confidence in the high number of victims in the French report, by comparison with those cited by investigators in other countries, particularly the U.S. and Germany, where he said lawyers and other hurdles had limited access to the relevant records.

A 2004 report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that about 4% of Catholic clergy in the U.S. had been accused of abuse by more than 10,000 people over the previous half-century.

Reports in Australia and Germany have inspired national gatherings of Catholic bishops, clergy and laypeople to consider proposals for change in the church.

Pope Francis has revised church law to make it easier to investigate bishops who abuse or cover up abuse by others.
A synod in Germany, prompted by a 2018 report that found priests there had abused at least 3,677 minors over seven decades, is considering the ordination of women and an end to mandatory celibacy for priests. Last week, the synod voted to support blessings for same-sex couples, despite a Vatican ban on the practice.

The Catholic Church isn’t the only religious organization to come under such scrutiny. A U.K. government-sponsored report found in 2020 that almost 400 clergy and other employees of the Church of England had been convicted of sex abuse from the 1940s until 2018.

The Vatican has also investigated itself, producing a 2020 report on the case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who in 2019 became the first cardinal in modern times to be dismissed from the priesthood after a Vatican court found him guilty of sexual abuse of minors and sexual misconduct with adults.

From the Archives
Clergy Abuse Victims’ Agonizing Choice: Take Settlement or Risk Lawsuit


0:00 / 6:354:03
Clergy Abuse Victims’ Agonizing Choice: Take Settlement or Risk Lawsuit
Clergy Abuse Victims’ Agonizing Choice: Take Settlement or Risk Lawsuit
Jimmy Pliska, of Scranton, Pa., is one of those who are seeking compensation from the church for sexual abuse that happened many years ago. If he accepts a settlement, he fears he may never know the truth about his alleged abuser. Photo: Alexander Hotz/WSJ.
The Vatican report contained evidence that three successive pontiffs— St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis—failed for years to discipline Mr. McCarrick. Mr. McCarrick, 91, who has denied wrongdoing, is currently on trial for sexual assault in Massachusetts.

Mr. McCarrick’s lawyer declined to comment.

After defrocking Mr. McCarrick, Pope Francis revised church law to make it easier to investigate bishops who abuse or cover up abuse by others.

Tuesday’s report on the clerical sex abuse in France follows the high-profile episode of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, a former archbishop of Lyon, who in 2019 was convicted of failing to report child sex abuse, but whose conviction was overturned the following year.

Cardinal Barbarin had allegedly failed to report an accusation by a victim of Bernard Preynat, a former priest who last year was convicted of sexually abusing several dozen boys in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, by his own admission.

Write to Francis X. Rocca at [email protected] and Sam Schechner at [email protected]

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Appeared in the October 6, 2021, print edition as ‘Church Abuses Called Widespread.’

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