French TV inquiry accuses 25 bishops of abuse cover-ups

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin is seen during a service on Good Friday in St.-Jean Cathedral in Lyon, France, March 25, 2016. (CNS/Reuters/Robert Pratta)
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin is seen during a service on Good Friday in St.-Jean Cathedral in Lyon, France, March 25, 2016. (CNS/Reuters/Robert Pratta)

by Tom Heneghan

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A hard-hitting French television investigation has accused 25 Catholic bishops of protecting 32 accused clerical sex abusers in France over the past half century and often transferring them to other parishes or even other countries when they were singled out for sexual abuse of minors.

The French bishops' conference declined an invitation to participate in the France 2 television program aired March 21. A conference spokesman accused journalists of trying to blackmail the church, an allegation the program's editor vigorously refuted.

Mediapart, an online journal that cooperated in the investigation, called the resulting report "a French Spotlight," a reference to The Boston Globe team that in 2002 reported on sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese. The yearlong French inquiry was also published March 22 as a book titled Church: The Mechanism of Silence.

The controversy over the program, titled "Pedophilia in the Church: The Burden of Silence," came as the bishops' conference struggles to demonstrate its concern for abuse victims while details of past negligence keep emerging.

Last year, the bishops pleaded for forgiveness over their "guilty silence" about abuse and stepped up their work with victims. But that has been overshadowed by the news that Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, failed to remove a priest who admitted to the cardinal that he had abused boys in the 1980s.

The newsmagazine "Cash Investigation," which usually focuses on financial corruption, approached the church "as we would have done for a multinational [corporation]," according to presenter Elise Lucet.

This included popping questions to Pope Francis and other prelates at church ceremonies and interviewing accused abusers with hidden cameras rolling.

The centerpiece of the two-hour program was the investigation by the television journalists and Mediapart that assembled a database concerning French abuse cases and consequences for the priests and the few deacons involved.

Of the 25 bishops it accuses, five are still in office:

  • Lyon's Barbarin;
  • Archbishop Jean-Luc Bouilleret of Besançon;
  • Bishop Marc Aillet of Bayonne;
  • Bishop Yves Le Saux of Le Mans;
  • Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the Society of St. Pius X.

Four are French and Fellay is a French-speaking Swiss native. The ultra-traditionalist society, which was in schism between 1988 and 2009 and still has no canonical status in the church, was founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and is active in France.

The inquiry found 339 victims, 228 of whom were under 15 at the time of the abuse. Only 165 of their cases were eventually reported to justice authorities.

Of the alleged abusers, 28 were transferred to another parish or to a foreign country once accusations against them surfaced, it said.

Significantly, the inquiry found that 16 of the 32 alleged abusers were accused after 2000, the year the bishops' conference decided to tighten its abuse guidelines and require that abusive priests be turned over to the authorities.

"Cash Investigation" showed its journalists researching the story in Europe, North America and Africa. Among the people they interviewed were victims at a convention of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and lawyers at Jeff Anderson & Associates in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In one section, the program said then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, tried to help Fr. Julio Grassi, who was convicted in 2009 to 15 years in prison for abusing boys, by ordering a long investigation meant to exonerate him on appeal.

Lucet attended a papal audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, standing at the front barrier to first hand questions for the pope to a bodyguard walking alongside the popemobile and then shout a question to Francis in Spanish.

"Your Holiness, in the Grassi case, did you try to influence Argentine justice?" Lucet asked Francis as he walked past her in the crowd. The pope stops, listens to the question again and responds with "nada" ("not at all") and a frown.

The journalists used the same technique on Barbarin, following him at church events around Lyon asking about abuse cases in the diocese.

Barbarin, who admitted in December 2016 that he had had a "late awakening" to the gravity of the abuse crisis, answered in generalities when stopped and quizzed before a Mass in the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière overlooking Lyon.

As scenes like that showed, the program was aggressive and sometimes dramatic. Its introduction showed a series of empty altars with the commentary, "On the altar of truth, God's law seems to prevail over man's."

The church did itself no favors, however, by declining an invitation to join in a post-program debate and offering only ill-prepared clerics for interviews.

Puy-en-Velay Bishop Luc Crepy, head of the bishops' conference committee on combatting pedophilia, appeared nervous and expressed shock when Lucet presented him with a list of 18 priests convicted of sexual abuse but still in ministry. He said it was up to the bishops to decide what to do in their dioceses.

Msgr. Olivier Ribadeau Dumas, the bishops' conference spokesman, issued a statement before the broadcast. He said the church refused to participate in a post-program debate with a sexual abuse survivors activist and a sociologist because of "the methods used for the interviews."

"It seems that journalistic ethics were not respected and that this program was more concerned with accusing than with explaining," he said.

He sounded more contrite after the broadcast, telling RMC radio that he watched it "with a feeling of shame. ... We did not respect the victims and our approach was to first protect our institutions. ... Today, the guidelines are extremely clear."

Deputy spokesman Vincent Neymon told the Catholic daily La Croix that the television team had tried to blackmail the church to gain access to a bishops' conference meeting. "We knew the approach of 'Cash Investigation' and Mediapart was basically scandal reporting," he said.

Emmanuel Gagnier, editor-in-chief of "Cash Investigation," rejected the accusations. "We regret that the bishops' conference spokesman preferred to launch public polemics rather than come to a debate in our studio despite several invitations."

Lay groups have criticized the church's approach to the inquiry.

"Our bishops are often prompt to express their disagreement with society or demonstrate very visibly on the streets or in the media about abortion, end-of-life issues or gay marriage," said the reform group Catholic Conference of the Francophone Baptized.

"But when they're the ones being taken to task, they tend to slip away. It's too bad, because this gives the impression they have something to hide or feel ashamed of."

François Devaux, head of the group La Parole Libérée ("The Liberated Word") for abuse survivors in Lyon, told daily newspaper Liberation that France — which has not had as large a wave of abuse scandals as in the United States or Ireland — cannot be complacent.

"We are only at the start of the process," said Devaux, who also figured in the "Cash Investigation" broadcast. "There are certainly other revelations to come in the near future."

[Tom Heneghan is the Paris correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]

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