The 485-page report (with 2,500 pages of appendices) compiled by the independent commission investigating sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in France leaves little doubt about the scale and scope of the scandal. The report estimates that 216,000 people were sexually assaulted by priests and men or women religious between 1950 and 2020, a total that reaches 330,000 when including those attacked by “lay aggressors working in institutions of the Catholic Church.” Commission president Jean-Marc Sauvé, a former vice president of the highest administrative tribunal in France, spoke bluntly about the findings at a press conference on October 5: “We must get rid of the idea that sexual violence in the Catholic Church has been completely eradicated and that the problem is behind us: no, the problem remains.”
In the days before the report’s publication, the French bishops conference (which created the commission in November 2018) had attempted to prepare the public during their ad limina visit in Rome. Yet the findings couldn’t help but come as a shock. The report notes that sexual violence is “significantly” higher in church settings than in other social circles such as school or camps; only in family settings is the risk of sexual abuse higher. Boys were found to represent nearly 80 percent of the victims, with a high concentration for children aged ten to thirteen, which the report ascribes to an “opportunity effect” for priests thanks to easier contact with boys in that age range (something the 2004 John Jay Report on sexual abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church had previously identified). Girls are more evenly distributed among age groups. The years between 1950 and 1969 saw the greatest number of attacks, while the number of cases fell sharply in the 1970s and ’80s, only to have stayed at about that level since the 1990s. While there has been a drop in the number of cases, the report connects this to the drop in the number of priests and men and women religious and the decrease in attendance at ecclesial institutions.
The composition of the commission and the methodology it employed in compiling its findings make the report especially notable. Sauvé chose eleven men and ten women for the commission, from different generations and professions, with different kinds of expertise: penal, canonical, and child-protection law; psychiatry and psychoanalysis; medicine and health; education and social work; history and sociology; and theology. It included people of different faiths as well as unbelievers, agnostics, and atheists. It listened to a large group of victims (250 hearings); created a research group on diocesan and non-diocesan archives, to which it had almost total access; commissioned a nationwide survey from INSERM (the French institute of statistics); took advantage of the recent abolition of the pontifical secret that covered canonical procedures that were the object of its investigation; established a team to study the work of similar commissions in other countries; and held dozens of hearings with bishops, religious superiors, and experts from various disciplines, and dozens more with different working groups. “In the interest of impartiality,” as the commission put it, the group did not include any member of the institutional Church or any victim. Nonetheless, the commission made clear in its introduction to the report that victims were always at its center. “The victims have a unique knowledge about sexual violence and only they are able to give us access to the subject. It is their word that served as a leitmotif to the commission’s report. It is thanks to them that the report was able to be conceived and written. It is thanks to them, and not only thanks to those who gave us the mandate, that the work has been done.” As Véronique Garnier, who works in abuse prevention in the diocese of Orléans and who was herself victimized from the ages of thirteen to fifteen, said upon the report’s release: “Our word is finally shouted.”