French clergy have sexually abused more than 200,000 children over the past 70 years, a major investigation released on Tuesday found, and its authors accused the Catholic Church of turning a blind eye for too long and urged it to reform.
The church had shown “deep, total and even cruel indifference for years,” protecting itself rather than the victims of what was systemic abuse, said Jean-Marc Sauve, head of the commission that compiled the report.
Most of the victims were boys, he said, many of them aged between 10 and 13.
The church not only did not take the necessary measures to prevent abuse but also failed to report it and sometimes knowingly putting children in touch with predators, he said.
Speaking just after Sauve at the public presentation of the report, the archbishop of Reims and head of the French conference of bishops, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, spoke of shame, asked for forgiveness and promised to act.
The commission was established by Catholic bishops in France at the end of 2018 to shed light on abuses and restore public confidence in the church at a time of dwindling congregations. It has worked independently from the Church.
Sauve said the problem was still there. He added that the church had until the 2000s shown complete indifference to victims and that it only started to really change its attitude in 2015-2016.
The Catholic Church’s teaching on subjects such as sexuality, obedience and the sanctity of the priesthood helped create blind spots which allowed sexual abuse by clergy to happen, Sauve said, adding that the church needed to reform the way it approached those issues to rebuild trust with society.
Sauve said the commission itself had identified around 2,700 victims through a call for testimony, and thousands more had been found in archives.
But a wide-ranging study by research and polling groups estimated that there had been around 216,000 victims, and the number could rise to 330,000 when including abuse by lay members.
There have been around 2,900-3,200 suspected paedophiles in the French church over the last 70 years, he added.
The French findings come a year after Britain said the Catholic Church had received more than 900 complaints involving over 3,000 instances of child sex abuse in England and Wales between 1970 and 2015, and that there had been more than 100 reported allegations a year since 2016.
Before Sauve took the floor, Francois Devaux, who set up victims’ association La Parole Liberee, told church representatives at the public presentation of the report: “You are a disgrace to our humanity,” , before Sauve took the floor.
“In this hell there have been abominable mass crimes … but there has been even worse, betrayal of trust, betrayal of morale, betrayal of children,” said Devaux, who also accused the church of cowardice.
He thanked the commission, saying that he hoped the report would prove a turning point: “You finally bring victims an institutional recognition of the responsibility of the church.”
(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Christian Lowe, Tangi Salaun; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Gareth Jones and Mike Collett-White)