PARIS — An estimated 216,000 victims suffered sexual abuse from paedophile priests and other members of the clergy over the last 70 years in France, a number that was described as “devastating”, “shameful” and “horrifying” at the release of a landmark report on Tuesday.
Add to that figure cases of sexual abuse against minors committed by lay members of the church and its institutions (teachers in Catholic schools, chaplains, leaders in youth groups and church camps), and that number rises to 330,000.
The new stats are a giant leap from the original figure of 10,000 victims given in March by Jean-Marc Sauvé, president of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) formed two and a half years ago in response to a string of high-profile paedophile scandals that rocked the French Catholic church in recent years.
For context, it’s estimated that paedophile crimes within the Catholic Church represent 4 percent of all sexual abuse committed against minors in France. “These figures are overwhelming and can, in no case, be without consequence,” Sauvé said at the press conference unveiling the report’s findings.
Commission president Jean-Marc Sauve speaks to the press during the publishing of a report by an independant commission into sexual abuse by church officials (Ciase) on October 5, 2021, in Paris. Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images
The report also estimates that between 2,900 to 3,200 paedophile priests and predatory members of the clergy — or around three percent — operated within the church between 1950 and 2020. That compares to a rate of between 4 to 7.5 percent in countries like Germany, the U.S., Ireland, and Australia, where similar reports have been commissioned, Sauvé added.
“Overall, there was negligence, failure, silence, and institutional cover-ups of a systemic nature,” Sauvé said. “...there has to be an acknowledgement of responsibility towards the victims.”
Between June, 2019 and October, 2020, the CIASE handled 6,500 calls, emails and letters from survivors and witnesses who responded to calls for victim statements and testimonials. The members of the interdisciplinary panel included historians, social scientists, theologians, psychiatrists and lawyers who worked on a volunteer basis to help produce the 2,500-page report. They also interviewed 11 priests and clergymen who perpetrated acts of sexual abuse against minors.
“We have heard the voices of the victims, we have heard their numbers, they are beyond what we could imagine. It is truly unbearable,” Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the Bishops’ Conference of France told attendees at the press conference. “I express my shame, my dread, my determination to act.”
In contrast to the general French population, where victims of sexual abuse against minors are predominantly young girls (75 percent), victims of paedophilia in the church over the last 70 years have been mostly young boys (80 percent), between the ages of 10-13.
Meanwhile, members of the commission also made 45 recommendations that include everything from conducting regular criminal record checks among members of the clergy who come in close contact with children; reforming power structures; and a closer examination of “the paradoxical obsession of Catholic morality on issues of sexuality could be counterproductive in the fight against sex abuse.”
When it comes to compensation, a point of contention between survivors and the French Catholic church which favours the distribution of a lump sum “financial contribution”, the commission emphasised the importance of setting up an independent body to make calculations on a case-by-case basis and to compensate each victim according to the extent of their individual suffering.
Earlier this year, French bishops proposed a plan to distribute €5 million (about £4.3 million) but refused to call it compensation. Under the proposed payment model, the money would come from donations among bishops, priests and parishioners, a plan that Sauvé criticised.
“The question of compensation cannot and should not be a donation,” he said. “It is their due.”