PARIS – Victims of abuse within France’s Catholic Church welcomed a historic turning point Tuesday after a new report estimated that 330,000 children in France were sexually abused over the past 70 years, providing the country's first accounting of the worldwide phenomenon.
The figure includes abuses committed by some 3,000 priests and an unknown number of other people involved in the church — wrongdoing that Catholic authorities covered up over decades in a “systemic manner,” according to the president of the commission that issued the report, Jean-Marc Sauvé.
The 2,500-page document was issued as the Catholic Church in France, like in other countries, seeks to face up to shameful secrets that were long covered up. Victims welcomed the report as long overdue and the head of the French bishops’ conference asked for their forgiveness.
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 a 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, while the broader study of sexual abuse found that 75% of the overall victims were girls.
The independent 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.
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 coverups 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.
Martine, 73, and Mireille, 71, were sexually assaulted by a priest when they were teenage girls in high school. They both declined to give their last name due to privacy reasons, in part because some family members were not aware of the abuses.
“It brings on such terrible thoughts," Martine said. “For me, personally, I had to wait for my parents to die” because otherwise she said it was “not possible” to speak out.
“I think that each victim experienced it as if they were the only one (victim), and that’s part of this phenomenon involving control and secrecy," Mireille said. “We are in a condition of submission ... in a mental captivity. So, we follow this person who suddenly takes power over us ... We are caught in a spider web.”
A recognition of the fault is essential, she said, and financial compensation is “really symbolic ... it won't fix things but it means it will also cost them something."
Olivier Savignac, the head of victims association Parler et Revivre (Speak Out and Live Again), contributed to the investigation. He told The Associated Press that the high ratio of victims per abuser was particularly “terrifying for French society, for the Catholic Church.”
Savignac assailed the church for treating such cases as individual anomalies instead of as a collective horror. He described being abused at age 13 by the director of a Catholic vacation camp in the south of France who was accused of assaulting several other boys.
“I perceived this priest as someone who was good, a caring person who would not harm me,” Savignac said. “But it was when I found myself on that bed half-naked and he was touching me that I realized something was wrong ... It’s like gangrene inside the victim’s body and the victim’s psyche.”
The priest eventually was found guilty of child sexual abuse and sentenced in 2018 to three years in prison, including one year suspended.
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.”
“Sometimes church officials did not denounce (the sex abuses) and even exposed children to risks by putting them in contact with predators,” he stressed.
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.
“No one expected such a high number (of victims) to come out of the survey and that is properly frightening and out of proportion with the perception that we’ve had on the ground," he told the AP.
Luc Crepy, the bishop of Versailles who heads an office fighting pedophilia, said “this is more than a shock. It is a deep feeling of shame.”
Crepy 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.
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.
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, Francis said a process of reform was necessary and every bishop must take responsibility for the “catastrophe” of the sex abuse crisis.
The shocking estimate of more than a quarter million potential victims dwarfs numbers released by other countries that have also faced national reckoning with church sexual abuse. But each country has investigated the problem in different ways.
Instead of limiting itself to specific cases, France’s report made an estimate of the overall scale of the problem, extrapolating the number of victims based on study of specific incidents and nationwide surveys.
Masha Macpherson contributed from Paris and Nicolas Vaux-Montagny contributed from Lyon, France.