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Leader comment: Clerical abuse: the French Church disgraced

08 October 2021

AS THE relentless news coverage of the past week has shown, the failings of a single member of a profession can cast a pall over the reputation of the whole organisation. It is absurd to suggest, after the conviction of Wayne Couzens for the rape and murder of Sarah Everard, that every male police officer is a rapist and murderer. He was clearly a bad apple. But the public perhaps has a better grasp of the meaning of that metaphor than the people who use it to isolate a single wrong-doer. Bad apples cause rot to spread to the apples around them. In Couzens’s case, this is more than the five other officers who were in his WhatsApp group and sent allegedly misogynistic and discriminatory messages. It includes the prevailing culture in many police forces. The Victims Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC told Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour last week: “Probably innate sexism runs through the police more deeply than it runs through society.” The inquiry proposed by the Home Secretary on Tuesday ought to be free to look at the evidence of a wider rot.

If the actions of one individual can shake an organisation, how about the actions of 3000? This is the estimated number of Roman Catholic priests in France who sexually abused more than 200,000 children over the past 70 years, alongside hundreds of teachers in RC schools, who clocked up perhaps another 100,000 victims. The answer is that the consequences for the Church in France are probably less serious than they were in countries such as the United States and Ireland, where similar levels of abuse have come to light in recent years, but only because the French Church’s position is historically weaker. What church leaders worldwide must realise, however — including Anglicans — is that such revelations harm the reputation of the whole of Christ’s Church. As with the police, it is absurd to suspect every priest of evil designs on children and adolescents; but, looking at the numbers involved, the public could be forgiven for treating the clergy as more dangerous than the police. A key test now is whether the Church sees its future problems — the trashed reputation, the claims for compensation — as a consequence of the public exposure, i.e. the old way of thinking about and dealing with abuse, or, as it should, as a consequence of the abuse and the years of covering it up.

The most immediate cost for the French Church will probably be financial. It will be looking with anxiety at the United States, where the payment of compensation to victims of abuse has caused at least 17 dioceses to file for bankruptcy within the past 20 years. It is as well that so many extravagant pledges of support were banked in the days after the Notre-Dame fire in Paris in 2019. Support for the Church is likely to be less forthcoming for the foreseeable future.

Paul Vallely: Church protects itself, not the victims

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