French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin on Monday defended himself against allegations he failed to report a priest for sexual abuse, telling a courtroom the Vatican had asked him "to avoid a public scandal."
"My authority is Rome," he added.
Barbarin and five other members of his diocese appeared in Lyon's High Court on Monday to stand trial for helping to cover up abuse.
But Barbarin is the highest-profile cleric to be caught up in the sexual abuse scandal in the French Catholic church so far. He was once so influential, he was tipped as a possible next pope.
Barbarin, 68, denies the allegations.
The trial, which kicked off on Monday in the eastern city of Lyon, has drawn a lot of attention. Euronews correspondent Valérie Gauriat, who is in the courtroom, reported that it was packed with around 20 lawyers, the nine plaintiffs, members of the public and the media.
Barbarin, who entered the courtroom to shouts of "shame," presented a calm exterior but appeared to pray before the proceedings started, Gauriat said.
Father Bernard Preynat is the priest who has admitted sexual abuse of underage boys in the 1980s and 1990s.
The alleged victims believe those higher up in the French Catholic Church were aware of the abuse as early as 1990 — the year Preynat was moved to a different parish. However, Barbarin, who was made Archbishop in 2002 and cardinal in 2003, has said he only became aware of the priest's abuse in 2007 and removed him from his duties in 2015.
François Devaux, one of the alleged victims, brought the case to light and now runs a victim support group,
"The trauma is ... I don't want to say definitive," he said. "But it certainly changes your life, it's undeniable, even for the luckier ones — and I think I count myself among them — my life would have been scarred forever but for my activism. Cardinal Barbarin is a litigant like everyone else and he must be judged for his actions."
'I did what Rome asked me to do'
In a prepared statement read out at the witness stand, Barbarin refuted allegations he tried to quash the scandal: "I have never tried to hide, let alone cover up these horrible facts."
The Archbishop, whose remarks on the scandal have sometimes shocked — in March 2016 he drew controversy for saying "Thank God, the majority of the facts are prescribed" — recognised that he had "not always been able to use the best and smartest words in the past."
He also defended the decision to name Preynat to several ministries post-2007, when he claims to have been first made aware of the allegations.
Preynat "told me he had not touched a child since 1990 . He swore. I was criticised for believing him," Barbarin said
When asked why he only removed Preynat in September 2015 despite the Vatican having told him in January of the same year to take measures to ensure Preynat had no contact with children, Barbarin replied: "I did what Rome asked me to do."
"They asked me to avoid a public scandal and I acted accordingly (...) My authority is Rome," he added.
Pope Francis' blind spot?
Pope Francis has come under fire for having a "blind spot" for sex abuse issues within the church in the past, particularly after his defence of a Chilean bishop who was accused of covering up abuse.
“The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I'll speak,” said the pope on the subject of the man Francis himself appointed. “There is not one shred of proof against him. It's all slander. Is that clear?”
He later apologised and accepted the Bishop's resignation.
In 2016, Pope Francis spoke about Cardinal Barbarin to Catholic newspaper LaCroix.
"According to the information at my disposal, Cardinal Barbarin took the appropriate measures, he took things in hand. He is brave, creative, a missionary," Francis was quoted as saying.