The sexual abuse of children in the French Catholic Church since the 1950s Part 1: Background and Independent Commission
France is sometimes called the "Church's eldest daughter," a reference to its close association with Catholicism that goes back 1,500 years. Nevertheless, the Church's power and influence dropped after the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, a time that ushered in an era of strict separation between the Church and State.
Today, the Church is still present in the lives of many French families - and it is in this context that the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests ebbs and flows in the collective mind and the media. In 2018 the Conference of French Bishops became alarmed by the bad publicity generated by several "resurfacing" cases of clerical sexual abuse. At a meeting in Lourdes (a few miles down the road from where your European SNAP coordinator lives) the conference responded that same year by forming the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE in French).
The commission, composed of respected professionals, jurists, senior civil servants, etc. was charged with several missions: i) to investigate the sexual abuse of the young and vulnerable going back to the 1950s. ii) to assess the results of efforts to address the issue of clergy sexual abuse earlier in the century, and iii) to make recommendations to insure the crimes are not repeated. More below on what is not part of the remit.
The commission's main task was to collect testimonies from survivors. It traveled around the country interviewing thousands of people who had come forward to share their stories. Some of the commission's interviews are available on its website. They are moving but make for painful reading. These reports make plain the grip the Church had and continues to have on French Catholics - as it does in Irish and Italian communities in the US.
The commission has asked INSERM, a public health-related research institute similar to the National Institutes of Health in the US, to survey a representative sample of 30,000 people in order to assess the extent of the problem of child sex abuse in French society in general. The goal is to compare the problem in the Church and in other segments of society (typically the family). This sounds groundbreaking and should provide interesting insights.
The work of the CIASE commission is similar in scope to that of the 2004 John Jay College of Criminal Justice report in the US. Still, there are interesting differences. Although both reports were commissioned by a Conference of Bishops, the French one is based on interviews independently conducted by the commission, whereas John Jay Report relied on surveys (not interviews) conducted by the Roman Catholic dioceses.
Although these surveys led to detailed and informative statistical tables, there are indications that sizable numbers of priests accused of sexual abuse were not included in the list of offenders provided by the dioceses. The protection never ends. On the other hand, a number of those who were reported were convicted and received jail sentences.
However, despite the positive differences in the French approach, accountability does not seem to be on the French commission's "to do" list. Notwithstanding several recent legal cases, it is therefore unlikely that abusive priests and their enablers will face any consequences as a result of the report's release.
Perhaps the most interesting difference between the two countries is in the role of money. Since most US survivors find that they are timed out of criminal prosecutions, victims have resorted to using the civil courts instead to secure a measure of justice. US tort law provides the means to expose both those who abused and also the Church officials who enabled that abuse. Unfortunately, the legal system emphasizes financial compensation as a means of redress. The Catholic Church in the US has paid out billions of dollars to survivors, while crimes have gone unpunished. The church may no longer sell indulgences, but it certainly seems to buy them.
In French culture, an interest in money is considered in poor taste. A striking example was provided with a TV interview of an incredibly dignified survivor who insisted he wanted a tangible recognition/admission of the crime - but not in the form of money paid to him.
We must not be naive and we need to ask the obvious question: will one more report, particularly with no emphasis on accountability, really make a difference? Or will it just collect dust in the Pope's library, with nothing changing and the Church continuing to obfuscate, cover up and evade responsibility for its crimes?
The CIASE report should be released later in 2021 and it will be the subject of the second part of our two-part series on the French situation. On that occasion I will liaise with French advocacy groups and make them aware of SNAP’s willingness to provide support for survivors: those who testified and of course others.
More broadly I shall investigate whether there are support group meetings in Europe and how SNAP could help. Still, robust and universal health care systems in many European countries guarantee that survivors receive the psychological care they need for as long as they need and without having to worry about costs.
In the meantime, feel free to write to me if you have questions, or if he missed some aspects of the story that could be addressed in the follow-up article.
Marc Artzrouni, SNAP Europe