The French Catholic church has expressed “shame” and pleaded for forgiveness, after a devastating report found that at least 330,000 children were victims of sexual abuse by clergy and lay members of church institutions over the past 70 years.
The publication of the landmark report on Thursday, France’s first major reckoning with what the Catholic church accepted was “appalling” abuse, has shaken the country with its horrific findings of a “massive phenomenon” of sexual abusers of children operating for decades within the church and its associated institutions.
The two-and-a-half-year independent inquiry found that staggering numbers of children were subjected to sexual violence by priests and clergy while the crimes were covered up in a “systemic way” by a deliberate “veil of silence” in the church.
The president of the investigative committee, Jean-Marc Sauvé, told a press conference: “Until the early 2000s the Catholic church showed a profound and even cruel indifference towards the victims.”
The report found an estimated 216,000 children were victims of sexual violence by French Catholic priests, deacons and other clergy from 1950 to 2020. When lay members of the Church, such as teachers and catechism supervisors, were included, the figure rose to at least 330,000 children sexually abused over 70 years.
It said the “vast majority” of victims were boys, who came from a wide variety of social backgrounds and who were attacked at a young age before reaching adolescence. Some sex offenders inside the church were “predators” on a vast scale who targeted extremely high numbers of children over long periods, with some attacking more than 150 victims.
Sauvé said the numbers of victims were “damning” and “in no way can remain without a response”. He urged the church to pay reparations even though most cases were well beyond the statute of limitations for prosecution. He recommended the Catholic church overhaul its internal legal system, reform its governance, rethink training and look at the dynamics that allowed the abuse to take place – namely the overwhelming power of priests and “the identification of a priest to Christ”.
The report made a “minimum estimate” of between 2,900 and 3,200 sexual abusers of children who operated in the French catholic church since 1950, yet it said only a handful of cases had prompted disciplinary action under canonical law, let alone criminal prosecution.
François Devaux, who set up the victims’ association La Parole Libérée, told church representatives at the public presentation of the report: “You must pay for all these crimes.”
He added: “You are a disgrace to our humanity … In this hell there have been abominable mass crimes … but there has been even worse, betrayal of trust, betrayal of morale, betrayal of children.” He accused the church of cowardice and condemned a “deviant system”, saying what was needed was a comprehensive response under a new “Vatican III” council led by Pope Francis.
Last year, Devaux’s attacker, the now defrocked priest Bernard Preynat, was convicted of sexually abusing minors and given a five-year prison sentence. Preynat acknowledged abusing more than 75 boys for decades.
Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the Bishops’ Conference of France, which co-requested the report, expressed his “shame and horror” at the findings. “My wish today is to ask forgiveness from each of you,” he told a news conference. He said: “The time for ambiguity and naïvity is over”, adding that he was “shaken” by the voices of survivors and the “unbearable” damage to the lives of children and young people.
Survivors who spoke out to report investigators included Claudette Couturier, 65, who told France TV that her first memories as a very young child were of being raped by three priests who took turns to attack her. She and her sister lived with her alcoholic grandmother. The priests would come to dinner then attack the children in their bedrooms. “They stole 13 years of my life,” Couturier said. She added that before she and her sister were able to be interviewed for the independent report, they had lived in silence, which was extremely damaging.
She said: “From the moment I didn’t denounce what was happening, it was me who was the disgusting one, me who was the guilty one. … With everything that happened to me, there was a profound thought that I was the one to blame because I let them do it.”
Sauvé and his team said victims had faced suffering, shame, isolation and often blame. In the report he wrote: “If the veil of silence covering the acts committed has finally been torn open … we owe it to the courage of these victims. Without their testimony, our society would still be unaware or in denial of what happened.”
The report found the huge scale of sexual abuse in the Catholic church was higher than in other institutions such as state schools, holiday camps and sporting organisations. “The Catholic church is, after the circle of family and friends, the environment that has the highest prevalence of sexual violence,” the report said.