Catholic Church in France examines consequences of French report on sexual abuse

Catholic Church in France examines consequences of French report on sexual abuse

PARIS – After the shock comes the time for reflection and action: two weeks after the publication on October 5 of the Ciase report on “Sexual violence in the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2020”, the bishops of France are working on new resolutions to be discussed and adopted at their November plenary assembly.

A matter of concern for Church leaders in France as they prepare for this assembly is the pressure currently exerted by French political leaders for changes to be made that would undermine the seal of sacramental confession.

Based on an investigation, as well as 243 testimonies, 2,819 letters and Church records, the report indicates that some 216,000 children have been sexually abused by members of the clergy over the past 70 years. The total number of abuse cases involving minors in the Catholic Church in France stands at 330,000, when those committed by lay people are included.

Created and funded by the Catholic Church in France in 2018 to shed light on sexual abuse within the Church and determine how these cases have been handled in order to help the Church better deal with cases of abuse in the Church. Going forward, the independent commission made 45 recommendations in its report, some of which are already controversial.

Indeed, in addition to recommendations quite similar to those already voted by the French bishops at their last plenary assembly in March 2021 – such as the creation of a special council for the prevention and the fight against sexual abuse, better training of priests , spaces for listening and dialogue and financial compensation for the victims – the president of the commission, Jean-Marc Sauvé, also called on the Church to reconsider the confessional secrecy concerning sexual abuse.

Confession seal in danger?

In an October 6 interview with Info France following the publication of the report, the president of the French Bishops’ Conference (CEF), Bishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort de Reims, reaffirmed the sacrosanct nature of the seal of confession which “binds us, and in this regard, is stronger than the laws of the Republic.

Such a statement, however, sparked an outcry in public opinion and in the political class, which led the Archbishop to be summoned by French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on October 12.

Before the French Parliament on the same day, the minister compared the secrecy of confessions to professional secrecy, stressing that there are exceptions to this secrecy in criminal law, in particular in cases of offenses committed against children under 15. In other words, the government is now considering amending the law on confessors, to put them on an equal footing with lawyers and other lay professionals.

Concern in the Catholic world intensified after media suggested that following his meeting with the Minister of the Interior, the Archbishop of Moulins-Beaufort conceded that priests should inform police of confessions of abuse committed by penitents during confession.

In an interview with the Register, Karine Dalle, spokesperson for the CEF, reassured the Catholic faithful, affirming that the French Catholic authorities do not intend to compromise on the teaching of the Church regarding the seal of the confession and this canon law, which is international, not modifiable for France.

“In no case did the Archbishop say that the secrecy of the confession would be removed. He never said that, ”Dalle told the Register. “But if the State tells us that priests must denounce crimes against minors revealed in confession, there would be an obligation to break the secrecy of confession; this would mean that the priests concerned would be excommunicated by Rome, ”she said, adding that certain adjustments could be proposed,“ which Rome will accept or not ”.

However, according to Father Thierry Sol, associate professor of canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, such provisions are very difficult to envisage. Indeed, the very nature of the sacrament of confession is not comparable to professional secrecy, even if French law would facilitate this misleading analogy. The secrecy of confession, says Father Sol, is not an ecclesiastical obligation decided by the Church. “The priest receives the confession in the name of God: in fact, it is only God who receives the confession and the information is not ‘available’ to the confessor,” he told the Register.

There is therefore an important distinction to be made, between what the Church qualifies as internal and external forum. According to Father Solather Sol, while doctors or lawyers have knowledge of external and visible facts, in the sacrament of confession the facts disclosed are in direct relation to the conscience, which is “the most intimate part of the person. human, his soul, therefore what is most inviolable.

Quoting the 2019 note from the Apostolic Penitentiary on this subject, he then underlined the fact that neither the bishops nor the Pope can modify or reduce the seal of confession, since it is of divine right.

The Vatican note cites recent remarks by Pope Francis, who said that “although this is not always understood by the modern mind […] the sacramental seal is indispensable and no human power has jurisdiction over it, nor claims to do so.

The note continues: “The inviolable secrecy of confession derives directly from revealed divine right and is rooted in the very nature of the sacrament, to the point of admitting no exception in the ecclesial sphere, nor, above all, in the civil sphere. a. “

In addition to its sacramental dimension, confession also represents for many young victims a safe space for speech, where the child’s speech can be expressed freely.

Karine Dalle said the feedback from confessors has shown the value of secrecy in the fight against abuse.

“When the confession is over, the priest waits a moment and then goes to the child and asks him if he can repeat what he said, but this time outside the confession,” she said, pointing out that according to the report, almost all of the perpetrators were themselves sexually abused as children and could not speak about their trauma. “This is what the anticlericals do not want to understand because they do not know all this context. “

In addition, the spokesperson for the CEF is convinced that the suppression of part of the secrecy of confessions for sexual abuse of minors will also dissuade the attackers from confessing their crime, which would further complicate the situation.

Will the gifts of the faithful be diverted to the victims?

The other major contentious issue resulting from the commission’s recommendations is the issue of financial compensation for those found to be victims of sexual abuse. Such a measure was already mentioned in the 11 resolutions against pedophilia endorsed by the bishops of France during their plenary assembly in March 2021 and then presented to the Ciase ahead of the publication of the report.

As the Church relies on donations paid to it for religious purposes, the thorny question of the source of funding for victim compensation has necessarily arisen.

In his intervention on the occasion of the presentation of the Sauvé report, François Devaux, founder of the association of victims La Parole Libérée, strongly pressured the bishops to compensate all the victims, which aroused among the faithful bewildered and worried about the prospect of their donations being used for this purpose, at a time when the finances of the local Church are already in difficulty.

Indeed, the Church cannot sell its buildings for compensation, contrary to what several commentators suggest, since most of these buildings are bequests that cannot be sold for non-religious purposes, nor transferred to the Church. State ownership in respect of all buildings constructed before 1905.

“We have to reassure all the faithful, we will not take their money,” said Dalle, referring to the recent creation of an independent fund to which everyone – not just the Catholic faithful – can freely donate to support the victims.

The Ciase report, for its part, called for an individual compensation mechanism for victims, on a case-by-case basis. The chairman of the commission also communicated that the faithful should not have to pay for crimes committed by members of the clergy.

The French bishops will vote and present their new proposals on the basis of the commission’s recommendations at their next plenary assembly in Lourdes from November 2 to 8, to which they also invited the victims.


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