‘The Problem Remains’

Sex abuse & the French Catholic Church
Pope Francis and four French bishops pray for the victims of clerical sexual abuse, October 6, 2021 (CNS photo/Vatican Media).

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.”

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The report is also receiving attention for its recommendations—some of which have generated controversy—and for taking Pope Francis specifically to task.

Some of the findings have raised questions, particularly the discrepancy between the high number of victims and low percentage of abusers among the clergy—just 2.8 percent, according to the report, compared to the 5 to 7 percent found in other national studies. The commission attributes this to the differing sampling methodologies used in the separate, individual surveys on which the report is based. Still, the report will likely be studied for a long time, as it also serves as a forensic analysis of the widening meaning of “abuse in the Church.” No longer is it a matter only of abuse by priests. The report estimates that one-third of the victims were abused by laypeople. The report also distinguishes between different “logics of abuse and systems of control”: abuse in the parish, abuse in school and other educational settings, and abuse in the family—as well as “therapeutic abuse” and “prophetic abuse,” that is, victimization by charismatic leaders and/or in new ecclesial movements. It differentiates the “institutional enterprises” that provide opportunity for abuse: sacramental, vocational, and charitable. It also notes the concept of “constructed ignorance” that prevents or makes it difficult for the victim to identify or acknowledge abuse, as well as the “silence, solitude, and suffering” that takes root among the community of abused Catholics. It calls out the “deviations of authority” and “deviations of the sacred” as typical of a Church too concerned with protecting the institution, and for a long time exhibiting no regard for victims.

The report is also receiving attention for its recommendations—some of which have generated controversy—and for taking Pope Francis specifically to task. “At this precise moment in the history of the institution as it is hit by the acute sex abuse crisis, [it has] the responsibility to dig right down to the roots of the problem […] as is made clear by, among other publications, Pope Francis’s Letter to the People of God.” The report recommends an examination of the requirements of celibacy and proposes an experiment about the ordination of married men to the priesthood: “Assess, for the Church in France, perspectives opened by the propositions of the Amazon Synod, in particular the suggestion that ad experimentum, […] married men could be ordained as priests if they fulfill the conditions for pastors, as laid down by Saint Paul in the First Epistle to Timothy.” No mention is made of the fact that Francis rejected (at least for now) this proposal in 2020’s exhortation Querida Amazonia. Yet that it comes up again in an independent report eighteen months later suggests that it may be the opinion of many Catholics.

The report also recommends the Church reform its power structure, using Pope Francis’s very language of synodality. It demands a review of the teaching on sexual morality that doesn’t separate it “from the Church’s social doctrine and the equal dignity of all human beings.” It calls for changes in catechetical formation: “During all types of catechism, teach the faithful, particularly children and teenagers, the importance of listening to one’s conscience with critical intelligence under all circumstances.” Most interesting is the recommendation that “the statute of limitations must not be extended,” favoring instead “so-called restorative justice.” The commission says this approach “seems preferable to further extending the statute of limitations by law.... A prolongation of the statute of limitations would not help in the recognition of crimes and would not help victims in their reconstruction, indeed these latter would be confronted with the even more uncertain outcome of a criminal trial due to the long periods of time passed since the event.” The rationale is that a prolongation of the statute of limitations would be an obstacle to both restorative justice and to “the introduction of provisions making it possible to establish the truth, irrespective of how long ago acts were committed.”

Neither the Vatican nor the institutional Church more generally have responded to these findings and recommendations yet.

In France the fallout of the report is already evident. The president of the bishops’ conference, Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, has been summoned by the French minister of interior for his statements on the superiority of the law of the Church to the law of the state when it comes to the seal of confession (the report recommends that “confessors must not be allowed to derogate, on the grounds of the sanctity of the seal of confession, from the obligations provided for by the French Criminal Code, which are compliant with those of natural and divine law which provides for the protection of a person’s life and dignity”). A few days later, the president of the bishops’ conference apologized and walked back those statements. But the confessional seal remains a complicated issue in the relations between church and state, not only in France but also, for example, in Australia.

The bishops have also started asking French Catholics to contribute financially to a fund for the reparations, in direct opposition to the report’s recommendation that a fund “should be replenished from the assets of the perpetrators and from those of the institutions belonging to the Church in France. It should exclude any appeal for donations from the faithful.” This could be a contested issue, though, given that victims of lay workers, not just clergy, are to be compensated: just what constitutes the “Church” in this case if a Church is the “people of God”?

The day after the report’s release, Francis expressed in a strongly worded message both the Church’s and his personal shame, decrying “the too-long inability of the Church to put the victims at the center of her concerns.” But in addition to the immediate aftermath in France, there is also a long-term issue for Francis’s papacy. If one looks at the most recent nationwide independent reports (the Royal Commission in Australia 2017, the MHG in Germany in 2018, and the French report), the findings on root causes and the recommendations are similar, tending to focus on the form of ordained ministry, the role of women, structures of governance, and teaching and catechesis. Neither the Vatican nor the institutional Church more generally have responded to these findings and recommendations yet, save for the launch of the “synodal process” between 2021 and 2023, which itself is a much-delayed response to the global Catholic abuse crisis—even if the official synod narrative downplays this fact. (Consider, in contrast, that the German synod and the Plenary Council in Australia could not be conceived of in any other way than as responses to nationwide investigations on the abuse crisis.) Six days after publication of the report, three important figures in French Catholicism launched a petition for a mass resignation of the bishops, which number about 120. But this kind of “Chilean turn” in the matter is unlikely, especially given Pope Francis’s recent rejections of the resignations of German bishops who, in different ways, failed to respond to the abuse crisis in that country.

As with their brethren in the United States, the French bishops seem to understand the importance of policies put in place in the early 2000s calling for serious attention to any new cases. But also as in the United States, the past is still not in the past when it comes to clerical sex abuse, as the report proves. The institutional Church may be taking better stock of the current situation, but it is by no means clear that it can propose rapid and effective solutions for the future. As one of the most prominent Church historians in France, Claude Langlois, wrote in conclusion of his 2020 book on the history of the sex-abuse crisis: “the current landscape of the Catholic Church resembles a field of ruins without the structure of the institution having been altered.” This is a very different image indeed from a bustling new building site, often used to describe the reforms of the post–Vatican II period.

Published in the November 2021 issue: 

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States (Bayard). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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