‘I Thought I’d Die With My Secret’: Report Uncovers 3,200 Paedophiles in Catholic Church

Victims of abuse speak to VICE World News ahead of a long-awaited report that’s expected to confirm that thousands of paedophiles operated in the Catholic church in France over the last 70 years.
October 4, 2021, 11:23am
​A gargoyle is illuminated by the full moon at Notre-Dame cathedral, the headquarters of the Catholic church in France. Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images​
A gargoyle is illuminated by the full moon at Notre-Dame cathedral, the headquarters of the Catholic church in France. Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images

PARIS – The release of a landmark report investigating how French Catholic priests sexually abused an estimated 10,000 victims over the last 70 years during a climate of cover-ups and secrecy is expected to mark a major turning point in the history of Catholicism in France, and threatens to send an already shrinking community of believers into a renewed crisis of faith.

More than two years after French bishops called for the creation of an independent commission  in response to the string of high profile sex abuse scandals to rock the church, the CIASE (Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church) will release its highly anticipated findings to the French public on Tuesday the 5th of October.

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Ahead of its release, the president of the commission Jean-Marc Sauvé told the AFP news agency and the weekly magazine Journal du Dimanche, that of the 115,000 priests and clergymen who worked in the church in France between 1950 and the present day, 2,900 to 3,200 were paedophiles. The commission has also passed along 22 cases to French prosecutors  that fell within the statute of limitations.

At the international level, the findings of the French report will be the latest to condemn the Catholic church. This summer, the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous school children at the sites of former residential schools across Canada forced Canadians to confront a part of the country’s dark past. For more than a century, until as recently as the 1990s, it’s estimated that 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families and placed in residential schools where they were physically and sexually abused and purged of their language and culture. The schools were run by the Catholic church.

Also this summer, 368 survivors of child sexual abuse came forward in Poland, where the Catholic church holds powerful political influence. And in California last month, the church quietly paid $23.9 million (about £17.8 million) in compensation to 197 victims of paedophilia.

In France, victims like Olivier Savignac and Father Jean-Luc Souveton, who were sexually abused as minors by French priests, are just two of the estimated 10,000 survivors who have shared their private traumas with members of the 22-person commission, a multi-disciplinary panel made up of historians, psychiatrists, anthropologists, theologians, lawyers, and sociologists, among others.

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The commission’s mandate has been to “shed light” on sexual abuse within the establishment, understand what happened, and prevent its recurrence.

In conversation with Savignac and Souveton, both men expressed nervous anticipation for the report’s findings. They spoke about the importance of seeing hard numbers and statistics to quantify the pattern of sexual abuse in the church. They emphasised the need to see succinct analysis on the institutional mechanisms that created a culture of sexual abuse and paedophilia within the church. And they spoke about the need to hear the church admit wrongdoing and accept responsibility.

“I’m expecting a clear analysis of this phenomenon, because it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is a systemic phenomenon,” Savignac told VICE World News in a phone interview. 

Souveton, 60, said he will be looking out for concrete recommendations and a clear follow-up plan.

“Because if there are no proposals on how to implement the recommendations, the report will just sit at the bottom of the drawer.”

And one of the biggest recommendations everyone – from the victims, to the clergy, to the Vatican – will be looking out for? Compensation.

Jean-Marc Sauve, the chair of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church. Photo: JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

Jean-Marc Sauve, the chair of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church. Photo: JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

When French bishops announced a proposal to distribute €5 million (about £4.3 million) among victims of sexual abuse within the Catholic church at a conference earlier this spring, they were careful to avoid one word in particular, “compensation,” and it didn’t go unnoticed.

Instead of calling it compensation, the money is being described as a “financial contribution,” a one-time lump sum payment to victims. 

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“This is a big sticking point,” said Savignac, 41, who also leads a victim support group.

“Not using this word ‘compensation’ is a lack of respect because it is a lack of official recognition. And victims only ask for one thing: to be recognised as a victim by the church.”

He points out that in Germany, bishops used the word “compensation” freely when they announced details of a similar payment model for victims of sexual abuse last year.

Moreover, under the proposed payment model, the €5 million is expected to come, not from the wealth of the Catholic church, but donations from bishops, priests and from parishioners’ pockets. 

It’s a miserly offer, Savignac said, especially as the Vatican’s real estate assets are estimated to be valued at €600 million (about £515 million) in Paris alone.

“The symbolic sum is well below what we should expect, especially when you look at the cost of therapy many of the victims have undergone, some for 50 years,” he said.

Souveton has been in therapy for 20 years after being sexually abused by a priest when he was a teen. He has spent his adult life battling a sense of shame, low self-esteem and a deep distrust in others. 

“To be quite honest, I thought I would die with my secret,” he told VICE World News.

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But that changed the day he stumbled upon his abuser Father Régis Peyrard in his own home in the diocese of Saint-Etienne in 2018, placed there by the local bishop who knew that Souveton had been abused by Peyrard. Souveton was furious.

“I felt completely disrespected. Where would you get the idea to house a predator in the same house as his victim? The more time passes, the more it leaves me speechless.”

When Father Peyrard took a young Souveton under his wing in the 1970s, he made the earnest teen who was in search of spiritual enlightenment feel special. Peyrard listened attentively to his questions, answered them with patience, gave him responsibilities that made him feel important, and was the first to suggest he had what it takes to join the clergy.

At the time, Souveton’s mother called him Peyrard’s spiritual son.

So in 1976, when Peyrard asked Souveton, then 15, to help him set up a summer camp, the teen agreed. The two would spend the night in a chalet, and would have to share the same bed. Souveton trusted Peyrard and had no reservations about sleeping next to him.

Souveton does not go into detail about what happened that night, except to clarify that he was not raped. Like many victims of sexual abuse, his subconscious has suppressed moments from the night as a protective mechanism, and his memory is fragmented.

But what he still remembers with acute and vivid clarity, is the fear and doom that consumed him: “What I remember most, is thinking at that moment that if I stayed in that bed, I would die.”

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He said this not because the abuse was violent, but because the young Souveton believed his soul was on the line if he didn’t leap from the bed. At Peyrard’s trial in 2018, seven victims testified against the octogenarian priest, some of whom were abused repeatedly. But only one fell within the statute of limitations. Peyrard was sentenced to six months in prison and given a one-year suspended sentence for the sexual abuse of a minor.

Last year, another paedophile priest, Bernard Preynat, was sentenced to five years in prison after a group of victims went public with their abuse. Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who knew of Preynat’s abusive past, was cleared of wrongdoing in an appeal earlier this spring.

For Sophie Lebrun, a journalist at a French Christian newspaper La Vie, and author of two books about paedophilia in the Catholic church, sexual abuse in the church – be it against minors or against women – is less about sexual deviance and more about the exertion of power.

Predators abuse their position of authority to bend victims to their will, she said. Also known as religious abuse, they justify their actions in the name of God.

“They’ll say, ‘God asked me to do it’, or ‘God is OK with what we’re doing’, ‘It’s the Lord who gives me permission to do this,’” she told VICE World News in a Zoom interview. “Every instance of sexual abuse is a double assault: a sexual violation, but also an assault on their victims’ faith and their soul.”

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Yann Raison du Cleuziou, a political science professor at the University of Bordeaux and author of Who are the Catholics of Today? said that the Catholic ecosystem creates an unhealthy power imbalance between priests and their parishioners.

“Catholicism encourages its members to be docile,” he said. “To be docile towards the doctrine of the pope, or towards a priest, is what makes you a good Catholic. A good Catholic is someone who surrenders to the institution.”

Photo: TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images

Photo: TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images

After realising that his abuser, Father Pierre de Castelet, had never been disciplined and was allowed to continue working with young boys, former Christian rock band musician Savignac was done being a good and docile Catholic. He was 13 when he, along with a dozen other boys at a Christian camp, were made to undress in front of the priest under the pretext of a medical exam, and sexually abused. At the age of 25, after learning that one of his priest friends and spiritual mentors had also sexually abused young teens, Savignac started looking up his abuser on the internet, only to find photos of de Castelet alongside teenage Boy Scouts. Nothing had changed. When camp counsellors had caught the priest groping boys in 1993, de Castelet was simply relocated to another camp.

For years, Savignac gathered evidence against his abuser before formally filing a complaint in 2012 against both de Castelet, and the local bishop, who knowingly protected the priest and covered up his crimes. It would take another six years before both men were found guilty at trial. De Castelet was sentenced to two years in prison while the bishop André Fort was sentenced to eight months. 

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According to expert du Cleuziou, the church’s history of cover-ups stems from a culture of ‘corporatism.’

“It’s their faith that’s being attacked. And for a certain number of bishops, protecting the church means protecting priests,” he said. “But this strategy is abusive and discriminatory because they forget that the laity are also in the church.”

Savignac is now burned out and disillusioned. After having devoted much of his life to the church, the 41-year-old says that though he is still a believer, he is seriously considering apostasy, the formal disaffiliation to the Catholic institution.

For that, he has no further to look than apostasiepourtous.fr, a site created by French web developper Rémi Duval in 2013 in response to protests against the legalisation of gay marriage in France, led in large part by conservative Catholics. The site simplifies the act of apostasy by generating template letters that can be printed out and sent to the diocese where the person was baptised. 

Along with LGBTQ rights, gender equality, abortion and euthanasia, people can also check paedophilia as one of the reasons for requesting to be apostatised.

“I do not want to be part of a community that is often affected by cases of child crime,” the box reads. “...On numerous occasions, the church has preferred to transfer priests involved in cases of paedophilia instead of denouncing them.”

Looking ahead at the commission’s report due out this week, journalist Lebrun offers up a few ominous predictions.

“I think there will be a few prominent figures in the church of France who will fall from their pedestals,” she said. “And I think that certain places considered holy and spiritual in France will also be revealed to be places of pain and suffering.”