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‘We felt God’s gaze upon us’: French Roman Catholics back abuse reparations

12 November 2021

Alamy

Demonstrators outside the headquarters of the French Bishops’ Conference in Paris protest against sexual abuse in the Church, on Saturday

Demonstrators outside the headquarters of the French Bishops’ Conference in Paris protest against sexual abuse in the Church, on Saturday

BISHOPS in France are to review aspects of church doctrine, and auction diocesan properties to make compensation payments, after the report of an Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church revealed widespread sexual abuse by the country’s clergy (News, Leader Comment, 8 October).

“We’ve recognised our institutional responsibility, and resolved to initiate a path of recognition and reparation — we’ve done this because our faithful, plunged in shame, expected it, and society demanded it; but, above all, because we felt God’s gaze upon us,” the Archbishop of Rennes, the Most Revd Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, who chairs the Bishops’ Conference, said.

”The commission’s report showed a reality we hadn’t been able to see. It put before our eyes and those of the world that our Church was a place where violence and sexual assault against minors had been committed in terrifying proportions. . . This cannot be a Church of Jesus.”

The Archbishop spoke on Monday at the close of a plenary assembly of the 120-member conference at the national shrine of Lourdes, a month after the 2500-page report estimated that 330,000 children had been abused since the 1950s by French priests or church employees.

He said that the image, displayed at the plenary, of a “petrified child” weeping alone under a cathedral arch, had revealed “an ecclesiastical system which, far from bringing life and opening up spiritual freedom, undermines, crushes, and tramples on human beings and their most basic rights”.

The Church was “deeply grateful” to individuals and groups who had helped to expose abuse, he said, enabling the French Church to begin a “new phase in its history”.

“These decisions mark our liberation. It will certainly have been worth the trouble of being humiliated, impoverished, and diminished if this helps us better meet with the poor, the excluded, and the despised.”

Among 26 measures announced at the assembly, diocesan assets will be sold off to finance compensation for abuse victims. Payments will be determined by an independent committee, while a national canonical criminal court will also be established for accused clergy.

Roman Catholic seminaries and training facilities must in future include at least one female council member, while lay people will be brought in to serve on all Bishops’ Conference commissions and councils.

The French Church’s doctrinal commission will re-examine areas of RC teaching highlighted as problematic in the report, including sexual morality, ministerial priesthood, and the “distinction between power of order and power of government”.

The measures will be accompanied by the creation of lay-led working groups on priestly formation, church governance, and other reform areas, while the Pope will be asked to send a “visitor team” to evaluate the bishops’ conduct.

Pope Francis, who discussed the report during Vatican talks in October with its author, Jean-Marc Sauvé, and French government ministers (News, 22 October), told the bishops in a letter that he counted on them to counter the “shame and tragedy” by finding ways “to honour and console the victims”, and by taking “all necessary steps to make the Church a safe home for everyone”.

France’s RC La Croix daily said that the Lourdes plenary — which included a weekend “penance ceremony”, during which bishops knelt on the ground, not wearing vestments — as a “cultural revolution”. Several victim groups branded the measures inadequate, however, and called on the government to scrutinise them.

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