A report into sex abuse in France’s Catholic Church claims an estimated 216,000 children were victims of clerical and religious abuse since 1950.
The 2,500-page document prepared by an independent commission was published on Tuesday, and documents decades of abuse and cover-ups.
The commission highlighted a “cruel indifference” on the part of the French Catholic Church for victims of “systemic” abuse.
Speaking at the release of the report, the commission president Jean-Marc Sauvé said the church showed "a profound and even cruel indifference towards the victims" of abuse, up until the early 2000s when the victims were "not believed, not heard".
The report states an estimated 330,000 children were victims of sex abuse when non-religious people involved in the church were taken into account.
Sauvé said about 80 per cent are male victims.
“The consequences are very serious,” Sauvé said. “About 60 per cent of men and women who were sexually abused encounter major problems in their sentimental or sexual life.”
The report says an estimated 3,000 child abusers — two-thirds of them priests — worked in the church during that period. Sauvé said the overall figure of victims includes an estimated 216,000 people abused by priests and other clerics.
'Terrifying for French society'
Olivier Savignac, head of victims association Parler et Revivre (Speak out and Live again), who contributed to the probe, told The Associated Press that the high ratio of victims per abuser is particularly “terrifying".
“That is devastating, because the ratio between 216,000 and 3,000, it’s one aggressor for 70 victims. That is terrifying for the French society, for the Catholic Church,” he said.
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.
Sauvé 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.
The commission issued 45 recommendations about how to prevent abuse. These included training priests and other clerics, revising the Canon Law (the legal code the Vatican uses to govern the church) and fostering policies to recognize and compensate victims, Sauvé said.
The report comes in wake of the conviction of prominent paedophile priest
The latest bombshell to hit the Catholic Church in France comes on the heels of the conviction of a prominent priest last year.
Bernard Preynat was convicted of sexually abusing children and given a five-year prison sentence. He acknowledged abusing more than 75 boys for decades.
One of Preynat's victims, Francois Devaux, head of the victims group La Parole Libérée (The Liberated Word), told The Associated Press that “with this report, the French church for the first time is going to the root of this systemic problem. The deviant institution must reform itself.”
He said the number of victims the report identifies is “a minimum.”
"Some victims did not dare to speak out or trust the commission,” he said, expressing concerns that the church in France still “hasn’t understood” and has sought to minimise its responsibilities.
The church must not only acknowledge events but also compensate victims, Devaux said. “It is indispensable that the church redresses the harm caused by all these crimes, and (financial) compensation is the first step.”
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.
Pope Francis expresses 'immense sorrow'
The Pope felt "immense sorrow" for the victims, according to Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.
Speaking to reporters after the report's publication, Bruni said Francis's thoughts were with the victims, and with the Church of France, "so that, having become aware of this appalling reality...it can undertake the path of redemption."
"With his prayers, the Pope entrusts to the lord the people of God in France, especially the victims, so that He may grant them comfort and consolation and so that, with justice, the miracle of healing may be accomplished," the spokesman concluded.
The president of the Conference of Bishops of France, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, said the bishops “are appalled” at the conclusions of the report.
“I wish on that day to ask for pardon, pardon to each of you,” he told the victims.
In May 2019 Pope Francis issued a 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 adviser, to resign as archbishop of Munich and Freising over the church’s mishandling of abuse cases. But he said a process of reform was necessary and every bishop must take responsibility for the “catastrophe” of the crisis.