By Keith Porteous WOOD*
The French bishops have announced, belatedly, that the Church will bear compensation for victims of clerical sexual abuse<https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/france-catholic-church-abuse-victims-b1954021.html>, and that it will be proportionate, as the French Commission CIASE recommended. It estimated that at least a third of a million minors were victims of abuse in the Catholic Church in France since 1950, so presumably there were approaching a million instances of abuse. It is inconceivable that abuse on such a scale was not widely known by clerics. Failure to report these criminal and often life-destructive acts breached both episcopal guidelines and, since 2000, secular law. Yet the number of prosecutions relating to this estimated one million abuses has been minimal. At least seventy years of omertà and reign of terror for whistle-blowers compounded the abuse by robbing victims of the satisfaction of seeing their perpetrators facing justice, and enabled them to continue abusing, often actively assisted by senior clerics who routinely moved them to unsuspecting parishes.
What confidence can we have that such secrecy and terrorising of whistle-blowers will vanish following the Bishops abuse summit in Lourdes? Should this not be a formal undertaking that the bishops make on pain of losing their seats?
A serious concern in this respect is the establishment of a new national canonical court to judge clerics accused of abuse. Canon law is no substitute for civil criminal law for such cases; it is neither adversarial nor is the maximum penalty – defrocking – sufficient. No canonical action should precede criminal proceedings, otherwise there is a risk that a canonical acquittal would be used as justification for blocking any referral to civil justice.
Only time will tell whether the scale of compensation offered by the “independent national body for recognition and reparation” will be realistic and it will treat victims fairly and with respect. It is essential that the body will fiercely guard its independence.
The early signs are not encouraging. Marie Derain de Vaucresson, president of the new body has already announced that: “We are not going to settle on the compensation of justice that evaluates the price of pain. We are in another dynamic, that of restorative justice.”
In my experience looking around the world, for example in Australia<https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/mar/05/qa-church-leader-says-george-pells-melbourne-response-should-be-scrapped>, the RC Church offers compensation schemes only when this is to its advantage, when the cost is less (and often the exposure of compromising details is less) than it would be if the victims went to court.
We hear nothing about what the Church is to receive in exchange for the compensation. A French Catholic priest has told me that a precondition, so taken-for-granted it is hardly necessary to state openly, for any compensation/gesture, however nominal, is that no legal action be taken, whether criminal or civil.
If that is the case, it is the bargain of the century for the Church. And it is the very opposite for victims and in particular future victims, as it is difficult to believe it will lead to disclosure of the suspected perpetrator to the courts.
These huge loopholes need to be closed; the bishops and new body must now declare that:
* No award of compensation is contingent on any obligation not to disclose the names of alleged perpetrators or to take further criminal or civil action. Obviously, financial awards by the body will be deductible from any other damages awarded by the courts.
* No retaliatory action, including on future career prospects can be taken against those bringing suspected abuse, including past abuse, to the attention of the civil authorities in good faith, and that any victimisation will be punished. The new body should be able to adjudge on complaints about such victimisation.
* Bishops will introduce regulations that make failure to report reasonable suspicions of abuse to civil authorities a dismissible offence, as the law and episcopal guidelines already require, and that this applies to any suspected abuser who is alive. A one-year period of grace should be allowed for the disclosure of suspicions of abuse from the past.
* An annual report should disclose separately by diocese and religious order the number of bishops (or equivalent in religious orders), clerics and lay persons about whom suspicions of abuse were reported to civil authorities, the number of these that have been judged to be founded and unfounded and the punishments imposed where founded, or that there were none. Recommended dismissals for bishops and heads of religious orders will of course need to be referred to the Rome.
* The new body should regularly publish information in similar detail about the number of complaints, the period to which they relate and the amounts paid in total and in bands.
* Canonical proceedings will not be instituted until after all secular criminal and civil proceedings have been concluded.
Keith Porteous Wood is president of the National Secular Society (United Kingdom) and spokeperson of the International Association of Freethought (IAFT)
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Pope pays homage to Cardinal who presided over a Church which abused a third of a million child victims
At an event in Assisi, Italy, the Pope singled out French Cardinal Barbarin for praise in an apparently off-the-cuff remark. He thanked him for his “testimony that builds the Church” for how he has dealt with the vicissitudes suffered by the accusations of covering up abuses. “He is among the poor. He too suffered the experience of poverty with dignity. Abandonment, mistrust, and he defended himself with silence and prayer.”
The Pope was referring to Barbarin’s conviction in 2018 for failure to report multiple abuse of minors, about which he was aware. This has been required by French law since 2000. After Barbarin was convicted, he issued a statement stating that he accepted responsibility. The conviction was overturned by higher courts, despite it never being claimed in court that he did not know of the priest’s abuse. The defence claimed was that the duty to report passed to the abuse victim on reaching adulthood. Most do not do so for decades, if ever.
The abuser was priest and scout master Bernard Preynat. When he was convicted and sentenced to prison the court was told that he had abused 3,000-4,000 scouts over several decades. Barbarin’s two predecessors – also the most senior clerics in France – knew of the abuse too. Preynat was only defrocked recently, after protests following his admission of the abuses.
Pope Francis’ comment needs also to be seen in the context of the recently reported one third of a million child abuse victims (and therefore presumably around a million abuse incidents) in the French Church since 1950, the Church His Excellency Cardinal Barbarin, emeritus archbishop of Lyon, led for nearly twenty years.
The reputation of French justice has also been badly tarnished. As well as Barbarin’s extraordinary acquittal, 25 bishops were accused of failure to report abuse, but no action was taken. Despite Preynat being sentenced, he unaccountably walked free from the court and will never now serve a day in prison.
President Keith Porteous Wood comments:
The Pope could hardly have signalled more clearly his indifference to the suffering of abuse victims of his Church and that all he cares about is the reputation of the Church and its prelates. He fiercely resists effective measures to curtail such abuse – especially requiring perpetrators to face civil justice – while allowing, if not encouraging, the Church worldwide to deny victims reasonable compensation to help improve their, often grievously-damaged, lives.