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"He would say 'tell me you love me'. And then he would say 'you're my little boy', 'it's our secret, you musn't tell anyone."
A group of former scouts have broken the silence about the abuse they went through decades ago. They want the highest authorities of the French clergy to face up to their responsibilities.
Victims speak out
Bertrand and Pierre Emmanuel had nothing in common. That was until they discovered a few weeks ago that the same memories had marked their childhood behind the walls of the same church in the suburbs of Lyon in east-central France.
“The priest who officiated here abused a lot of children, dozens and dozens in fact,” says Bertrand Virieux, one of the alleged victims
Several of the alleged victims spoke to euronews journalist Valerie Gauriat about the abuse:
“What shocked me the most was when he tried to put his tongue in my mouth. He stroked my genitals, I couldn’t avoid it,” recalls Pierre-Emmanuel Germain-Thill. “I wanted to run away, and at the same time, I didn’t know what to do, I was afraid that if I left that room, nobody would believe me.”
Bertrand Virieux: “I remember the smell of sweat, I remember contact with clothes. I remember his wandering hands under my shirt, which held me tightly against him.”
Didier Burdet: “He used to put his leg behind me to block me and he rubbed against me; I remember that very well, I still have the sensation of his genitals against me. He would say “tell me you love me”. And then he would say ‘you’re my little boy’, ‘it’s our secret, you musn’t tell anyone’+.
These three men share a secret that for decades has weighed on dozens of former Scouts aged from 8 to 12, whom Father Bernard Preynat supervised, from 1970 to 1991. He was described as a charismatic man, much appreciated by those who entrusted their children to him every week.
“Of course there were people who knew,” explained one parishioner. “But nobody really said anything because the priest really had a great aura. I’m sure there were parents who, when the children told them, said ‘what are you talking about, it’s not true!’ “
Bertrand and Pierre-Emmanuel took euronews reporter Valérie Gauriat to visit the place where the abuse took place.
“I remember very well that it happened in this room for instance,” said Bertrand pointing. “And also a couple of times, in the corner of that other room… However much it was noisy outside, here we were in silence. Just like today. It still rings in my ears”
A silence, which Didier Burdet has also suffered from for over 30 years. He was abused from age 8 to 11. We meet him at the house of Bertrand, co-founder of the Parole Libérée (Freed word) an association launched last December with other alleged victims of Bernard Preynat.
Several of them have filed complaints against the priest for sexual abuse on minors under 15 years.
Helped by a psychologist, the group offers support and a platform of expression.
Within weeks, the association had received dozens of testimonies from alleged victims, who had until then not dared to tell their story, or were not listened to by their relatives.
“We succeeded in liberating expression, and revealing these facts, we said this is the reality, this is the truth. This is what those children went through. In order that we can no longer be confronted by people who play down the facts” said François Devaux, alleged victim and co-founder of the association.
François Devaux still has the letter that his parents sent to the Church back in 1991. At that time he had spoken out to his parents; they immediately wrote to the Diocese of Lyon to ask for the priest’s suspension
The priest confessed, but stayed in office
Father Preynat confessed. The Archbishop of the time, took him away from his parish.
Yet six months later, the priest returned to service. He continued to work, and stayed in contact with children in other parishes in the region for 25 years.
He was finally suspended from office in May 2015, by the current archbishop, Cardinal Barbarin. But still celebrated his last Mass in August.
Put under investigation and judicial control in January, Bernard Preynat has confirmed the allegations of sexual abuse, and confessed to cases of rape.
Admissions which only add to those made by the priest 25 years ago, says his lawyer Frédéric Doyez:
“If justice has not been rendered until now, it is not Father Preynat who prevented it. From the moment he was uncovered, he confessed. He is a man who has been living with the offenses that he committed for over 25 years. The odd thing is that he was granted a great deal of trust, as if nothing had happened. They thought that it was enough to relocate him, for things to fall into oblivion “
In the former parishes of Father Preynat, the case has caused astonishment, and also, some embarrassment.
“All I can tell you, is may he who has not sinned cast the first stone, that’s all,” answered one parishioner. “It’s quite troublesome, but for us he was a very good priest. We loved him very much, and we’re really sorry he left. Our son was a choir boy, and he was very sad to see him go. “
We meet one of the priests who now officiates in one of Preynat’s former parishes, and knew the man well.
“He loved the children, the children liked him, and catechism went well” he says. “I was a thousand miles from thinking he could have done those things in the past… He was my superior, I was the assistant cleric, he was my pastor. It would have been a bit embarrassing to know that my priest had done this. It would not have been bearable, it was better not to know. “
Since Preynat’s first confession in 1991, several cardinals have followed as head of the Diocese of Lyon, to which the alleged victims of Bernard Preynat demand accountability today.
‘I am mostly angry at the whole church system, at all the people who knew, within the church” says Didier. “The bishop at the time, today’s bishop.
All these people let it happen. Why was this priest not kept out of reach of children? Today it’s a very serious question that has to be asked. ‘
The Archbishop of Lyon knew but did nothing
Cardinal Barbarin, current Archbishop of Lyon, had claimed to have been informed of the acts of Bernard Preynat in 2014.
He has now admitted in the French press, that he knew from 2007.
Adding, in his own defense, that the allegations were old, and there had not been any new complaints or signs of recurrence.
The archbishop declined our interview requests.
We were directed instead, to Régine Maire, in charge of the Preynat case, and of listening to his victims, for the Diocese.
Barbarin just followed his predecessors policy she says.
‘That kind of silence, this way of protecting the institution rather than the victims is quite regrettable…but that’s how it went..’
A response that is just not enough for the alleged victims of Preynat.
Several of them now intend to file suit against the archbishop of Lyon, and against Regine Maire, for not denouncing acts of paedophilia.
An announcement made a day after our encounter with Regine Maire. Asked about what could happen if new cases of abuse were revealed, after 1991, she said Cardinal Barbarin could go “all the way”.
‘The Cardinal Barbarin I believe is aware of the risks involved ‘ she says. “If there is a judgement of crime protection.. or not reporting, he knows that …well.. I believe that the risk is prison. I think he realized the risk. And that he is quite capable of putting his resignation forward if he must. After all, we are talking about the credibility of the church! “
A church from whom the members of la Parole Libérée want answers,
Their complaints could also target some members of the Vatican whom they say had been informed.
The Holy See has reconfirmed the obligation for bishops to report cases of child abuse to civil authorities.
The trial of Bernard Preynat is imminent.
For many of the alleged victims, the abuse is too old to be considered by the French courts.
Pierre Emmanuel is one of those whose case is not prescribed.
But for him, as for all the others, the Preynat case must resonate well beyond the court corridors.
‘Today for me it’s already a victory to have been able to file suit and get his confession” he says. “And to know that eventually a move can be made at the level of religious authorities, to shed the light on everything that has been hidden for 25 years. For me that’s very serious and, this is why this action is so important. For the light to be shed, simply. ‘