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French Catholic Church inquiry finds 216,000 sex abuse victims dating back to 1950s

An independent inquiry into alleged sex abuse of minors by French Catholic priests, deacons and other clergy has found some 216,000 victims from 1950 to 2020, a "massive phenomenon" that was covered up for decades by a "veil of silence."

All Saints' Day mass at the Sacre-Coeur basilica in Paris. A new report claims at least 2,900 paedophiles have operated in the Catholic Church in France since 1950.
A new report claims at least 2,900 paedophiles have operated in the Catholic Church in France since 1950. Photo: THOMAS COEX / AFP.

The landmark report, released on Tuesday after two and a half years of investigations, follows widespread outrage over a string of sex abuse claims and prosecutions against Church officials worldwide.

When lay members of the Church such as teachers at Catholic schools are included, the number of child abuse victims climbs to 330,000 over the seven-decade period.

“These figures are more than worrying, they are damning and in no way can remain without a response,” the president of the investigative committee, Jean-Marc Sauve, said at a press conference.

“Until the early 2000s the Catholic Church showed a profound and even cruel indifference towards the victims,” he said.

Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the Bishops’ Conference of France (CEF) which co-requested the report, expressed his “shame and horror” at the findings.

“My wish today is to ask forgiveness from each of you,” he told the news conference.

Commission president Jean-Marc Sauve attends the publishing of a report  commission into sexual abuse by church officials.

Commission president Jean-Marc Sauve attends the publishing of a report commission into sexual abuse by church officials. Photo: THOMAS COEX / various sources / AFP.

Sauve denounced the “systemic character” of efforts to shield clergy from sex abuse claims, and urged the Church to pay reparations even though most cases are well beyond the statute of limitations for prosecution.

The report, at nearly 2,500 pages, found that the “vast majority” of victims were pre-adolescent boys from a wide variety of social backgrounds.

“The Catholic Church is, after the circle of family and friends, the environment that has the highest prevalence of sexual violence,” the report said.

‘Institutional recognition’

Sauve had already told AFP on Sunday that a “minimum estimate” of 2,900 to 3,200 paedophiles had operated in the French Church since 1950.

Yet only a handful of cases prompted disciplinary action under canonical law, let alone criminal prosecution.

Francois Devaux, head of a victims’ association, condemned a “deviant system” that required a comprehensive response under a new “Vatican III” council led by Pope Francis.

“You have finally given an institutional recognition to victims of all the Church’s responsibilities, something that bishops and the pope have not yet been prepared to do,” Devaux told the conference Tuesday.

The victim estimates were based in large part on a representative study carried out by France’s INSERM health and medical research institute, with a statistical “confidence interval” of 50,000 people more or fewer.

Sauve and his team of 21 specialists, all unaffiliated with the Church, also interviewed hundreds of people who came forward to tell their stories.

“If the veil of silence covering the acts committed has finally been torn open… we owe it to the courage of these victims,” he wrote. “Without their testimony, our society would still be unaware or in denial of what happened.”

The commission also had access to police files as well as Church archives, citing only two cases of refusals by Church institutions to turn over requested documents.

Overall, it found that 2.5 percent of French clergy since 1950 had sexually abused minors, a ratio below the 4.4 to 7 percent uncovered by similar inquiries in other countries.

While that would imply an unusually high number of victims per assailant, “a sexual predator can in fact have a high number of victims, especially those who attack boys”, the report found.

For commission chief Sauve, until his retirement one of France’s highest-ranking civil servants, the inquiry hit close to home.

Shortly after accepting the job, he got a letter from a former classmate at his boarding school, recounting abuse at the hands of the priest who gave them both music lessons.

Sauve told Le Monde newspaper last month that his commission discovered that the priest – who later left the school without warning – had abused dozens of others.

Member comments

  1. At least the Catholic church is prepared to look at its own history and own what happened under its umbrella. How long will it take for the other international organisations to look at their own histories, I wonder? The Scouts have had their scandals but nothing has been done on this scale; football, gymnastics, judo, you name it. There have been scandals at so many times and in so many countries, but after the indignation and the excuses nothing came out of it. It’s always a “bad ‘un” that did it; never a good look at the organisational culture.

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CRIME

How France plans to prevents youngsters accessing online pornography

France is set to announce new measures this week to prevent youngsters from accessing porn websites, in the latest round of a years-long struggle to protect children from explicit material.

How France plans to prevents youngsters accessing online pornography

“I plan to put an end to this scandal,” Digital Affairs Minister Jean-Noel Barrot told the Parisien newspaper on Monday.

France’s data protection and media regulators Cnil and Arcom are set to announce their latest proposals to rein in porn websites which are in theory subject to a 2020 law requiring age verification.

Previous attempts have been held up by privacy and technical concerns, as well as court action by the websites.

To its frustration last September, a Paris court ordered Arcom to enter into mediation with several porn websites including market leader Pornhub, holding up efforts to block them.

READ MORE: France hits Google and Facebook with huge fines over ‘cookies’

Under the new proposal, people wanting to access explicit material will need to download a phone application that provides them with a digital certificate and code, the Parisien reported.

The code will be needed to access a porn website under a system “which will work a bit like the checks from your bank when you buy something online,” Barrot told the newspaper.

“2023 will mark the end of our children accessing pornographic sites,” he added.

President Emmanuel Macron, who is married to former school teacher Brigitte Macron, promised to make protecting children from porn a priority during his bid for re-election last year.

In November, he launched the Children Online Protection Laboratory, an initiative that aims to bring together industry giants and researchers to look for ways to shield minors online.

In September last year, a report entitled “Hell Behind the Scenes” by French senators concluded that there was “massive, ordinary and toxic” viewing of porn by children.

The report found that two thirds of children aged 15 or less had seen pornographic content.

The French production industry has been roiled by a series of sexual assault cases in recent years in which women have come forward to allege rape, mistreatment and manipulation by directors and fellow actors.

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