330,000 children have been the victims of church sex abuse in France, report says

Olivier Savignac, head of a French association for victims of clerical abuse
Olivier Savignac is the president of an association for victims of clerical abuse in France.
(Alex Turnbull / Associated Press)

A major French report released Tuesday found that an estimated 330,000 children were victims of sex abuse within the Roman Catholic Church in France over the last 70 years, in the country’s first major reckoning with the problem.

The figure includes abuses committed by some 3,000 priests and 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 Sauve.

The head of the French bishops conference asked for forgiveness from the victims, about 80% of whom were boys, according to the report. The bishops are meeting Tuesday to discuss next steps.


The commission urged the church to take strong action, denouncing “faults” and “silence.” It also called on the French state to help compensate the victims, notably in cases that are too old to prosecute in the courts.

“The consequences are very serious,” Sauve said. “About 60% of men and women who were sexually abused encounter major problems in their emotional or sexual life.”

Sauve added: “We consider ... the church has a debt toward victims.”

Pope Francis has changed church law to explicitly criminalize the sexual abuse of adults by priests.

June 1, 2021

The 2,500-page document prepared by an independent commission comes as the Catholic Church in France, as in other countries, seeks to face up to shameful secrets that were long covered up.

Victims welcomed the report as long overdue.

Francois Devaux, head of the victims group La Parole Liberee (The Liberated Word), said it was “a turning point in our history.” He denounced the cover-ups 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 said, calling on the church for compensation.

Pope Francis vows to rid the Roman Catholic Church of sexual abuse and offers prayers for the victims of American ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Nov. 11, 2020

Olivier Savignac, head of the group Parler et Revivre (Speak Out and Live Again), who contributed to the investigation, told the Associated Press that the high ratio of victims per abuser is particularly “terrifying for French society, for the Catholic Church.”

He assailed the church for treating such cases as anomalies as opposed to 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 also 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 a growing cyst, 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 two years in prison, with one year suspended.

The commission worked for two and a half years, listening to victims and witnesses and studying church, court, police and press archives starting from the 1950s. A hotline launched at the beginning of the probe received 6,500 calls from alleged victims or people who said they knew a victim.

Sauve denounced the church’s attitude until the beginning of the 2000s as “a deep, cruel indifference toward victims.” They were “not believed or not heard” and sometimes suspected of being “in part responsible” for what happened, he said.

The report says an estimated 3,000 child abusers — two-thirds of them priests — worked in the church during the seven-decade period. That figure is likely to be an underestimate, Sauve said. The tally of victims includes an estimated 216,000 people abused by priests and other clerics, he said.

The estimates are based on research led by France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research into sexual abuse of children in the French population.

Former priest Christopher John Cunningham, 58, is charged with sexually abusing children at churches in Palmdale and Redondo Beach from 1996 to 2001.

April 14, 2021

“Sometimes church officials did not denounce [sex abuses] and even exposed children to risks by putting them in contact with predators,” Sauve said.

The president of the Conference of Bishops of France, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, said that “we are appalled” at the conclusions of the report.

“I wish on that day to ask for pardon, pardon [from] each of you,” he told the victims.

Sauve said 22 alleged crimes that can still be pursued have been forwarded to prosecutors. More than 40 cases that are too old to be prosecuted but involve alleged perpetrators who are still alive have been forwarded to church officials.

Even as it has pledged to go after predators provide support to those harmed by clergy, the Catholic Church has done little to identify and reach sexual abuse victims.

Jan. 4, 2020

The commission issued 45 recommendations for how to prevent abuse. These include training priests and other clerics, revising canon law — the legal code the Vatican uses to govern the church — and developing policies to recognize and compensate victims, Sauve said.

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 acknowledged abusing more than 75 boys over decades.

The Preynat case led to the resignation last year of the former archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who has been accused of failing to report the abuses to civil authorities when he learned about them in the 2010s. France’s highest court ruled earlier this year that Barbarin did not cover up the case.

French archbishops, in a message to parishioners read during Sunday Mass across the country, said the publication of the report would be “a test of truth and a tough and serious moment.”

“We will receive and study these conclusions to adapt our actions,” the message said. “The fight against pedophilia concerns all of us. ... Our support and our prayers will keep going toward all the people who have been abused within the church.”

An analysis found more than 900 clergy members accused of child sexual abuse who were missing from lists released by the dioceses and religious orders where they served.

Dec. 28, 2019

In May 2019, Pope Francis issued a groundbreaking new church law requiring all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities.

In June, Francis swiftly rejected an offer from Cardinal Reinhard Marx, one of Germany’s most prominent clerics and a close papal advisor, to resign as archbishop of Munich and Freising over the church’s mishandling of abuse cases.

But the pope said a process of reform was necessary and every bishop must take responsibility for the “catastrophe” of the crisis.