A stunning report released Tuesday estimates that 330,000 children in France were sexually abused over the past 70 years.
The figure includes abuses committed by roughly 3,000 priests and an unknown number of other people involved in France's Catholic Church — wrongdoing that Catholic authorities covered up over decades in a "systemic manner," according to Jean-Marc Sauvé, the president of the independent commission that issued the report.
Victims welcomed the report as long overdue and the head of the French bishops' conference asked for forgiveness from them.
The 2,500-page document was issued as the Catholic Church in France, as in other countries, seeks to face up to shameful secrets that were long covered up.
Abusers Included Priests, Clerics, Scout Leaders, Camp Counselors
The report said the tally of 330,000 victims includes an estimated 216,000 people abused by priests and other clerics and the rest by church figures such as scout leaders or camp counselors. The estimates are based on broader research by France's National Institute of Health and Medical Research into sexual abuse of children in the country.
The study's authors estimate 80% of the church's victims were boys.
France has had several major legal cases involving church sexual abuse, but most incidents investigated for the study happened too long ago to prosecute.
The commission urged the church to take strong action, denouncing its "faults" and "silence." It also called on the Catholic Church to help compensate the victims, notably in cases that are too old to prosecute via French courts.
"We consider the church has a debt towards victims," Sauvé said.
The commission also gave preventative suggestions, including the adoption of strict measures to vet clergy and people who work in the church with children; clear ways for victims to safely and immediately report abuse; and a sweeping review of church teachings, notably its treatment of sexuality and sexual violence.
Francois Devaux, head of the victims' group La Parole Libérée (The Liberated Word), said it was "a turning point in our history." He denounced the cover-ups that permitted "mass crimes for decades."
"But even worse, there was a betrayal: betrayal of trust, betrayal of morality, betrayal of children, betrayal of innocence," he added.
Investigation Lasted More Than 2 Years
The commission worked for 2 1/2 years, listening to victims and witnesses and studying church, court, police and news archives starting from the 1950s. Sauvé denounced the church's attitude until the beginning of the 2000s as "a deep, cruel indifference toward victims."
The president of the Conference of Bishops of France, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, said French bishops "are appalled" at the conclusions of the report.
"I wish on that day to ask for pardon, pardon to each of you," he told the victims.
Luc Crepy, the bishop of Versailles who heads an office fighting pedophilia, said a process was underway to put together funds and create an independent commission to handle church compensation for the victims.
The report comes after a scandal surrounding now-defrocked priest Bernard Preynat rocked the French Catholic Church. Last year, Preynat was convicted of sexually abusing minors and given a five-year prison sentence. He admitted abusing more than 75 boys for decades.
Pope Francis Reacts
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Pope Francis learned about the report's findings "with sorrow."
"His thoughts go in first place to the victims, with a profound sadness for their wounds and gratitude for their courage to speak out," he said.
Victims and their advocates have long complained that bishops and religious superiors have escaped justice for having engaged in sexual misconduct themselves, or failed to protect their flocks from predator priests. Bishops and religious superiors are accountable only to the pope, and only a handful have ever been sanctioned or removed for sex abuse or cover-up, and usually only after particularly egregious misbehavior became public.
In 2018, the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick epitomized the trend: McCarrick rose to the heights of the Catholic hierarchy even though he had credible allegations of sexual misconduct against him that the Vatican had received. Francis ultimately defrocked McCarrick in 2019 after a U.S. church investigation determined he sexually abused minors as well as adult seminarians.
Francis issued in May 2019 a groundbreaking new church law requiring all Catholic priests and nuns to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities.
In June of this year, the pope said a process of reform was necessary and every bishop must take responsibility for the "catastrophe" of the sex abuse crisis.
Most Senior Catholic Ever Convicted Served Only 13 Months of a 6-Year Sentence
As CBN News has reported, over the last several years, several Catholic priests and bishops have gone to trial for alleged sexual abuse. In 2019, ex-Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic to ever be convicted of child sex abuse was sentenced in an Australian court to 6 years in prison for molesting two choirboys in a Melbourne cathedral more than 20 years ago.
Pell, Pope Francis' former finance minister, was ordered by the court to serve a minimum of 3 years and 8 months before he was eligible for parole.
The Victoria state Court of Appeal in August of 2019 rejected Pell's expected appeal. But he was released in April of 2020 after Australia's highest court overturned his conviction after serving only 13 months of his six-year sentence.
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