French Catholic clergy sexually abused more than 216,000 children over the past 70 years, a major investigation released on Tuesday found, and its authors said the Catholic Church had turned a blind eye to the ‘scourge’ for too long.
The head of the inquiry said there were at least 2,900-3,200 abusers, and accused the Church of showing a “cruel indifference towards the victims”.
Most of the victims were boys, he said, many of them aged between 10 and 13.
“Faced with this scourge, for a very long time the Catholic Church’s immediate reaction was to protect itself as an institution and it has shown complete, even cruel, indifference to those having suffered abuse,” the report said.
The revelations, which showed the problem in France was more widespread than previously thought, were the latest to rock the Roman Catholic Church, after a series of sexual abuse scandals around the world, often involving children.
François Devaux, who is also the founder of the victims’ association La Parole Libérée (Freed speech), said there had been a “betrayal of trust, betrayal of morale, betrayal of children”.
The inquiry found the number of children abused in France could rise to 330,000, when taking into account abuses committed by lay members of the Church, such as teachers at Catholic schools.
For Mr Devaux it marked a turning point in France’s history: “You have finally given institutional recognition to victims of all the Church’s responsibility – something that bishops and the Pope have not yet been prepared to do.”
According to the Vatican statement, the Pope learnt about the report after he met visiting French bishops in the last few days.
“His first thoughts are for the victims, with a deep sadness for their wounds and gratitude for their courage in coming forward,” it read.
“His thoughts also turn to the Church in France, and that, in recognising these terrible events and united by the suffering of the Lord for his most vulnerable children, it can take the path of redemption.”
The head of the French conference of bishops, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, said the church was shamed. Calling the report a “bombshell”, he asked for forgiveness and promised to act.
The commission was established by Catholic bishops in France at the end of 2018 to shed light on abuses and restore public confidence in the church at a time of dwindling congregations. It has worked independently from the church.
Sauve said the problem was still there. He added that the church had until the 2000s shown complete indifference to victims and that it only started to really change its attitude in 2015-2016.