Letters from Europe (No 3, October 2021) The sexual abuse of children in the French Catholic Church since the 1950s
by: Marc Artzrouni - SNAP Europe
Part 2: Reflections on the Independent Commission Findings
In our first article on sexual abuse in the French Catholic Church we reported on the ongoing work done by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE in French). The CIASE was commissioned by the French Conference of Bishops and is headed by Jean-Marc Sauvé, a retired senior civil servant.
The Commission is composed of respected professionals: jurists, psychologists, health professionals, theologians, etc. Their 500-page final report was released on October 5 and the main findings have reverberated around the world. The Commission has documented the cases of 2,900 to 3,200 priests who have abused 216,000 minors and vulnerable people since the 1950s. (The figure is 320,000 if you add "lay" perpetrators who teach, coach, or advise within Catholic institutions).
These numbers have sent shockwaves through French society - with a headline in Le Monde (the French equivalent of The New York Times) that reads: "Pedocriminality: a damning report for the Church." Note how to its credit Le Monde (and other French media) has replaced "pedophilia" with a word that leaves no doubt: a "liking" of children that is acted upon is a crime.
The Commission painstakingly sifted through diocesan archives in order to reach the 2,900 to 3,200 range for the number of perpetrators. Given the Church's extreme reluctance to recognize these crimes it is likely that these figures are low. This may indeed be the case given that the total figure of 216,000 victims is based on a representative sample of 28,000 adults who were asked whether they had been abused as children. A scientific survey used to assess the extend of clergy sex abuse is unusual and its results therefore credible. This suggests that either each perpetrator abused roughly 100 children or that a larger number of perpetrators (say 6,000) each abused 50 children: either way the results are devastating.
The Commission traveled the country to hear hundreds of hours of often harrowing testimony by victims who had been asked to come forward and testify. Although the sexual abuse of children is the worst, the criminal deviousness of predatory priests who slowly manipulate their way into the lives and psyche of nuns and seminarians with the goal of making their eventual abuse seem practically normal and natural ("God's will") comes a close second in the Church's pantheon of horrors.
The CIASE report bluntly describes the appalling insensitivity of a Church more interested in protecting its own than in the wellbeing of victims - but there is nothing new there. Entire chapters are devoted first to the assessment and to the training and counseling of prospective priests with the goal of ensuring they do not sexually abuse children and others. One is left baffled. What is so difficult to understand about the simple commandment "thou shalt not sexually abuse?"
Since the early 2000s the growing awareness of the scope of the problem has been epitomized by the creation of diocesan "crisis centers" and hotlines set up to deal with reports of sexual abuse committed by clergy. These centers are not secret and they are often run by lay people. It is as if USA Gymnastics set up its own hotline to allow athletes to report their abuse at the hands of their coaches and were applauded for doing so. Oops, a quick check just revealed that USAG (and no doubt many other non-religious institutions) has a safeguarding web page with a link to report abuse. Give them credit for trying to do something about the sexual abuse of children by people in positions of power - sadly a crime so rampant in our societies that institutions can openly admit to it without disappearing into oblivion or being discredited beyond redemption.
The report recognizes that some measures are slowly being put in place, aimed at reducing the chances of a clergyman being alone with a child. It also suggests that the Church should teach children about "knowledge and rights" and not just consider them as "receivers of the doctrine." This is going to be problematic for a Church that does not do Enlightenment well and has historically exercised its control by keeping the faithful indoctrinated and ignorant (Galileo anyone?).
Predictably a Twitter storm has followed the release of the report, revolving around a #MyChurchToo hashtag. Numerous messages emanate from Catholic folks who cannot or do not want to leave the Church despite the crimes committed by its representatives. Perhaps the most poignant message came from a parent who tweeted
My son will become an "alter server" this year. He is ten-years-old - and the perfect "target". I am terrified at the thought of letting him go on the alter servers' pilgrimage in June. That's the point we've reached.
Yes indeed, we have reached the point where the grip of the Church on its members is such that parents will feel compelled (lest they go to hell, perhaps) to send their ten-years-old children "into the unknown" with the real fear of them being violated in their soul, mind, and body.
Tom Doyle made an interesting point in his presentation during SNAP's September 2021 Conference. He said that the Catholic Church fears nothing more than an "angry Catholic" who in the aftermath of a case of sexual abuse may feel betrayed and let down by the Church.
There may be a cultural difference here between the United States and Europe, but there are real questions about the language of the Commission's president Sauvé, a product of the Catholic establishment who as a young man trained for two years to be a priest before deciding that life was not for him. He does not sound very angry at the horrors he has heard about for two years - and minces words very carefully. His narrative is unfailingly sanitized, with references to "mistakes" that required perpetrators to seek "treatment", rather than appalling crimes that should result in long prison terms. The words "crime" and "pedocriminalité" do not seem to be part of his vocabulary.
Your Europe Correspondent had to double-check twice a statement Sauvé made during a religious program on national television on Sunday, October 10, five days after the release of the report: he sees no need to extend the statutes of limitations (SOLs) for sexual abuse, which would only lead to more "pain" and "disappointment." It is safe to say that "revival windows" for the SOLs will definitely not be part of Sauvé's vocabulary.
The principle of separation between the church and state will be tested with a comment made by Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, the president of the French Bishops' conference who commissioned the report. He has said that priests are duty bound by the "seal of confession" and he rejects the Commission's recommendation that priests must follow the "laws of the Republic" which compel a person to report any information concerning the sexual abuse of a minor. (Presumably then, a priest who hears a colleague confessing to raping an adult nun is off the hook). This has not gone down well with the French media and the government.
For all these reasons one is left with the odd sensation of a Church so blinkered, tone-deaf and out of touch that it is its own worst enemy. One outcome is that many survivors, including some interviewed by the Commission, are pessimistic about the prospects for change. One even said "We don't need another report, we need action" - probably reflecting the fact that there was nothing qualitatively new in the report - although the scope of the problem was found to be an order of magnitude worse than expected. There are reasons to believe that the French Catholic Church is going to face some serious headwinds in the months to come.