About 3,000 priests abused minors and vulnerable people in France, study shows

At least 10,000 victims were abused over past 70 years, commission president says

The Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church has taken nearly three years to complete the study. Photograph: Fred Tanneau / AFP via Getty

The Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church has taken nearly three years to complete the study. Photograph: Fred Tanneau / AFP via Getty

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About 3,000 Catholic priests committed sexual crimes against minors and vulnerable people in France over the past 70 years, according to an explosive study to be released on Tuesday.

The Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, known by its French acronym Ciase, has taken nearly three years to complete the study, which resulted from a decision taken by French bishops in November 2018.

About 1,200 people replied in writing to a public appeal for testimony. Another 6,500 called a telephone hotline. Two-person teams from Ciase then conducted in-depth, two-hour interviews with 250 of the victims.

The report will provide an overall estimate of the number of victims. In a press conference last March, Jean-Marc Sauvé, a retired vice-president of the Council of State and the president of the commission, said “at least 10,000 victims” was a low estimate. 

“The big question we are asking is: what percentage of victims have we reached?” Mr Sauvé said. “Twenty-five per cent? Ten per cent? Five per cent, or less?”

Two-thirds of the incidents of abuse occurred at the hands of diocesan priests, Mr Sauvé told the Journal du Dimanche. He added that the figure of 2,900-3,200 “paedo-criminals” out of a total of 115,000 clerics over the 70-year period was “a minimal estimate”.

Interviews with victims established that half the cases occurred between 1950 and 1969; 18 per cent in the 1970s; and the remaining one-third in the decades since. The majority of victims were male, and 87 per cent of abuse was inflicted on minors.

Mr Sauvé, a practising Catholic, recruited 12 men and 10 women, among them doctors, historians, lawyers, psychologists and psychiatrists, sociologists and theologians. Some are believers, others are not. At least one Jew and one Protestant are members of the commission.

The members of Ciase have served without pay, and made the testimony of victims “the cornerstone of their work”, Mr Sauvé said. They visited 14 French cities, and went through the archives of dioceses, the ministries of justice and the interior and media records. Their goal was to assess the extent of sexual abuse in the church, evaluate measures taken by church authorities to counter it, and make recommendations for the future. The commission will not establish the guilt of individual perpetrators.

Prevalence

A related study of 30,000 people by the French medical research institute Inserm seeks to establish how prevalent sexual abuse is in society at large, compared to the church. Though the highest rate of abuse has occurred within the family, “the scale of the phenomenon [in the church] is far greater than suspected”, Philippe Portier, a historian, sociologist and member of Ciase, said.

As secretary general of Ciase, Sylvette Toche, a former auditor of Paris airports, read incoming mail. Ms Toche told the Catholic newspaper La Croix she learned that people who had been sexually assaulted “went to their families, to the church and to the authorities, but no one believed them”.

Jean-Pierre Rosencveig, a retired children’s court judge, said that when he saw men his own age, in their mid-70s, crying after talking for an hour and a half, “You cannot remain indifferent, and you realise what violence was done to them. Sixty-five years later, it’s as if it was yesterday.”

Mr Rosencveig, who is Jewish, sees the Catholic Church as a bulwark against Islamism and sectarianism. “Today, the moment the church says anything, people bring up sexual abuse. The church must regain its legitimacy, must recognise its responsibility for the past.”

The bishops have promised to pay “contributions” – not damages – to victims starting next year. No amounts have been set yet.