The slow awakening of the bishops in the face of abuses

In November 2001, the bishops gathered in Lourdes applauded Bishop Pican at length, sentenced two months earlier to three months in prison for not having denounced a priest from his diocese who had committed sexual abuse of minors. In November 2018, during the same assembly, they silently listened to seven victims recount the traumas they had experienced, before engaging with them on avenues for reflection.

This large gap is a testament to the progress made in the fight against sexual abuse committed by clerics. From denial to recognition, from the protection of the institution to listening to victims, the Church of France has experienced a long process of awareness, often under pressure from victims and the media, and not without resistance and internal dissension.

While several scandals hit the headlines, the article “About pedophilia” published in 1998 by the doctor and theologian Marie-Jo Thiel in the bishops’ review (1) marks a first shock. “When I described the figure of the perverse abuser, and his denial of his crimes, they could hardly believe me, she remembers. They thought that it was enough to speak kindly to an abusive priest for him to make amends. “

The indictment of Bishop Pican in early 2000 and his conviction accelerated the consideration of this still taboo subject. A declaration was adopted on November 9, 2000 recalling that a bishop “Cannot and does not want to remain passive, much less cover up criminal acts”. “This text was to be signed by the president alone but all the bishops wanted to join in, affirming their desire to collaborate with justice”, specifies Mgr Stanislas Lalanne, then spokesperson for the episcopate.

In 2001, a first advisory committee on abuse was set up, and the following year the brochure was published. “Fight against pedophilia”, printed in 100,000 copies, intended for educators. For Stéphane Joulain, priest and psychotherapist, the institution then resists recognizing a systemic problem in the Church. “They were convinced that this only concerned a few cases, he said. There was no question of calling into question the authority of a Church which was reflecting on its visibility in society. ““At the time, the victim did not exist”, abounds Marie-Jo Thiel.

The subject is however put on the table almost every year in the assembly. At each stage, the bishops believe in good faith that they have solved the problem, in particular with the directives adopted in 2015 which specify the procedures for reporting to justice, in accordance with the standards prescribed in 2010 by Benedict XVI on “the most serious crimes.” “. But that’s without taking into account the old cases. The subject catches up with them with the Preynat affair.

The meeting with victims will mark a real turning point. Some bishops received them very early on, such as Bishop Blaquart, in Orleans. But many are reluctant, for fear of being attacked, of taking sides in an issue that involved one of their priests or simply of not knowing how to react. The media audience met by the association La parole libérée, launched in December 2015, the testimony of other victims “Gave voice to many other ‘voiceless’, emphasizes Marie-Jo Thiel, and thus gradually obliged the Church to take them into account ”.

This is the creation, in 2016, of a national messaging service for victims, a permanent unit for the prevention and fight against abuse (CPPLP), listening cells and in the dioceses … The bishops also take note of repentance in Lourdes and commit to listening better to the victims. The following year, however, when they asked to be received in Lourdes, they remained at the door of the hemicycle. “The bishops are not ripe”, they say.

It was not until 2018 for the historic meeting to take place and for a collaboration to begin: working groups were launched. (read opposite) and an independent commission charged with shedding light on abuses in the Church since 1950. “This work of truth was done thanks to the victims, also thanks to the strong gestures of Pope Francis”, underlines Mgr Luc Crepy, who chairs the CPPLP. Despite the victims’ wish that they wait for the report from Ciase, on September 30, the bishops are determined to take decisions this week. “Important decisions” to keep moving forward.


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