Philippe Barbarin, the Archbishop of Lyon, has resigned after being handed a six-month suspended prison sentence for failing to act on sexual abuse allegations in the Catholic church.
A French court convicted him on Thursday of failing to report allegations of sexual abuse of boy scouts that took place in his diocese in the 1980s and early 1990s, by a priest who is due to go on trial later this year.
The cardinal – Archbishop of Lyon since 2002 – is the highest profile cleric to have been caught up in the sexual abuse scandal in the French Catholic church so far.
He was once tipped as a possible future pope.
The Prosecutor's Office had originally said on Wednesday it would not seek a conviction because "the statute of limitations has expired."
The 68-year-old had always denied the allegations. “I never sought to hide, even less to cover up these horrible acts,” Cardinal Barbarin said at his trial.
He claimed in court that he only learned of assaults attributed to the priest in 2014, when a victim confided in him. However, in a 2016 interview in La Croix newspaper he said he had been made aware of the priest’s “behaviour” around 2007 or 2008 – but had not acted as there had been no complaint.
The alleged victims of Father Bernard Preynat, who has admitted sexual abuse of underage boys in the 1980s and 1990s, believe Church officials knew of the abuse as early as 1990 when Preynat was moved to a different parish.
Barbarin has been condemned for taking months in 2015 to follow a Vatican directive to remove Preynat from any duties which would put him in contact with children.
He claimed his slowness to act was due to the Vatican asking him to avoid a public scandal.
Victims welcome sentence
The suspended jail sentence handed down to Barbarin came as a surprise to some observers: at the end of the trial in January the prosecutor had not sought punishment for the cardinal or the five other church officials accused alongside him. The court did not find them guilty.
However, the verdict in Barbarin’s case was incriminating. “Philippe Barbarin made the conscious choice, to preserve the institution to which he belonged, to not pass on (information) to the legal authorities,” AFP reported the judgment as saying.
The court found that “by wanting to avoid scandal”, the cardinal had risked preventing many other cases of abuse from being revealed, to the detriment of the victims.
A lawyer for one of the nine victims who were civil parties to the case described the cardinal’s conviction as “an extraordinary symbol”.
François Devaux, co-founder of the victims association “La Parole libérée”, hailed the verdict as “a great victory for child protection”.
Barbarin to appeal
Lawyers for Barbarin have said they intend to appeal against the conviction. “The court’s reasons do not convince me. We will therefore contest this decision,” said Jean-Félix Luciani, adding that the court had been under pressure as a result of documentaries and a film about the case.
The film “Graçe à Dieu” by François Ozon, currently on release in French cinemas, tells the story of how the Lyon victims came together to reveal the abuse they had suffered – and their battle for justice as the Catholic Church dragged its feet.
Cardinal Barbarin’s trial and conviction comes as another blow to the Catholic Church. It comes just weeks after the Vatican’s special summit on tackling child sexual abuse, and news of the conviction in Australia of another senior figure in the church, Cardinal George Pell.