LYON, France (Reuters) – The Roman Catholic archbishop of Lyon, the highest-profile cleric to be caught up in the paedophile scandal inside the Catholic Church in France, told a court on Monday he never tried to cover up sexual abuse and was not guilty of anything.
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who stands trial alongside five others from his diocese, is accused of failing to report allegations of sexual abuse on Boy Scouts in the 1980s and early 1990s by Father Bernard Preynat.
Preynat has admitted sexual abuse, according to his lawyer, and is due to go on trial later this year.
“I never sought to conceal or cover up the facts,” Barbarin said on the first day of trial in Lyon.
“I am grateful justice intervened in this affair, but I didn’t think it was up to me to file a complaint, especially since the victim was told it was too late to act,” he said.
“I can’t see what I am guilty of.”
While most of the recent focus in the Church’s global abuse crisis has been on Australia and Chile, Barbarin’s trial puts the spotlight on Europe’s senior clergy again, just as Pope Francis prepares to host a meeting of senior bishops from around the world in Rome next month to discuss the protection of minors.
Barbarin, who moved to the Lyon diocese in 2002, visited the priest in his parish the same year but said he had not checked Preynat’s file, where mail from parents denouncing the abuse was recorded, before doing so.
After being officially informed of Preynat’s actions in 2014, Barbarin said he convinced one of the alleged victims, Alexandre Hezez, to write a letter describing the facts, which he passed on to Church hierarchy in Rome.
He removed the priest from his post in 2015, six months after being told to do so by the Vatican. “It was to avoid public scandal, just as Rome had suggested,” he told the court.
Lyon prosecutors had previously investigated Barbarin but dropped the probe in the summer of 2016 without a detailed explanation. However, an association of alleged victims called Parole Liberee (“Freed Word”) used a provision of French law to compel the cardinal to stand trial.
Pope Francis has come under fire over the Church’s handling of the spreading sexual abuse crisis.
He met Barbarin in early 2016, and later told the Catholic newspaper La Croix that it would make no sense for the cardinal to resign before any eventual trial.
(Reporting by Catherine Lagrange in Lyon, Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Alison Williams)