Bishop says he focused on helping paedophile priest more than victims


A French Catholic bishop, on trial for covering up for a paedophile priest, admitted to a court yesterday he had focused more on helping the deviant cleric than aiding the victims and their families.

Dr Pierre Pican, Bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux, spoke on the first day of his trial in the northwestern town of Caen for failing to turn in a priest later jailed for 18 years for the rape of one boy and sexual abuse of 10 others between 1989 and 1996.

Bishop Pican (66) told the court that he was first informed of Father Rene Bissey's offences in December, 1996, by the vicar general of Normandy, Monsignor Michel Morcel, who had been approached by the mother of one of his victims.

"I was convinced of the reality of the facts reported to me by Father Morcel," the Bishop said. He confirmed that the words "acts of paedophilia" had been used at the time, but said: "I thought that meant fond ling".

Bishop Pican said he confronted Bissey in January 1997 after learning of one abuse case but failed to follow up on other cases the priest admitted to during their talk. "The failure to investigate what had happened to other victims was a lack of vigilance on our part," he said, visibly annoyed about having to discuss sexual acts in court.

Instead of informing the police, Bishop Pican said, he sent Bissey on a retreat and then had him seek psychiatric help. He transferred Bissey to a nearby parish in September, 1998, but the priest was arrested on paedophilia charges a few days later.

Bishop Pican is the first French bishop to face prosecution for failing to inform on a paedophile priest, although similar cases have arisen in other countries as victims of sexual abuse by clerics increasingly blame the Church hierarchy.

"The procedure that took place shows that at no point was the situation of the victims taken into account. Father Pican cared only about the fate of Father Bissey," wrote the judge who drew up the charge sheet.

Bishop Pican's lawyers argue France's professional secrecy laws give him the right to remain silent on information that Bissey gave him during a private conversation.

But lawyers for families of Bissey's victims say Bishop Pican cannot use this justification, since the conversation took place outside the confessional and was thus not protected by law.

In a high-profile case last July, a US jury found the Catholic diocese of Dallas, Texas, had concealed sexual abuse of boys by a priest and awarded the victims $119.6 million in damages. The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Murphy O'Connor, faced calls to resign after saying he had done nothing irresponsible in allowing a known paedophile to work as a chaplain.