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More than 200,000 children sexually abused by French Catholic clergy, landmark report finds

A landmark report to be published Tuesday estimates that 216,000 minors were abused between 1950 and the 2020; that number rises to an estimated 330,000 when including victims of abusers who were not clergy but had other links to the Church, such as Catholic schools and youth programs, according to Jean-Marc Sauvé, the president of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) which authored the report.

Between 2,900 and 3,200 abusers were estimated to have worked in the French Catholic Church since the 1950s, out of a total of 115,000 priests and other clerics, the report found.

Those numbers were extrapolated from a survey for the commission by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. The institute worked with the polling agency IFOP to survey a representative national sample of more than 28,000 people over the age of 18 online between November 25, 2020 and January 28, 2021.

The report estimated the number of survivors nationwide over time based on the number of survey respondents who said they had been abused. The national survey came in addition to a public call for victim testimonies.

Presenting the findings of the investigation on Tuesday, Sauvé said children were more likely to be abused within Catholic Church settings than in state-run schools or in summer camps — or in any setting other than the family.

“The Catholic Church is, after the circle of family and friends, the environment where the prevalence of abuses is the highest by a significant margin,” Sauvé told a news conference.

The problem was systemic, and the sexual violence was not limited to “a few black sheep that strayed from the flock,” Sauvé told CNN ahead of the report’s publication. “When it was informed of abuses, [the Church] did not take the strict measures necessary to protect children from predators.”

Earlier this year, he told CNN he feared it was “very possible that the victims will reach at least the number of 10,000.” But the final number of abused minors is believed to be more than 30 times higher than that early estimate.

Abuse of minors within the Church accounts for close to 4% of all sexual violence in France, Sauvé said Tuesday. Most of the violence happened between 1950 and 1968, he said, but still persists today. “The problem is not behind us, it is still here.”

CNN has reached out to the French Catholic Church for comment.

‘The problem is still here’

The investigation was commissioned in 2018 by French Catholic clergy groups. It is financed by the French Catholic Bishops conference, but members are not paid and do not receive instructions from the Church. The commission was permitted to access the archives of dioceses and religious institutions.

Sauvé, a former civil servant, headed a 21-member interdisciplinary panel of experts from diverse religious backgrounds to produce CIASE’s report. It gathered direct testimony from nearly 6,500 people, leading to the identification of 2,700 abuse victims, Sauvé said, adding that a further 4,800 were identified by combing through Church archives and press clippings.

“These people were victims. They became witnesses and in this sense, actors of the truth. It is thanks to them that this report has been conceived and written,” the report summary said.

The panel also interviewed 11 abusers from the clergy to shed light on their motivations and how they viewed their actions, Sauvé said.

The report aimed to establish the facts and provide an understanding of what happened in order to prevent “such tragedies” from taking place in the future, but not to establish “personal responsibility,” according to the commission’s website.

Sauvé says his commission drew on similar investigations conducted in the United States, Ireland and Australia. He said it was only the second time a survey of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church had been carried out among the general population. “This had only been done in one country, the Netherlands, and only on the Dutch population above 40,” he added.

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The report will “change everything,” Katherine Dalle, head of communications for the Bishops’ Conference of France (CEF), told CNN on Sunday. “It is a very important moment for people who have been abused. It is an important moment for the Church in France.”

Church authorities sent a message to be read at every Parish in the country during Sunday Mass, which said that the report’s publication “will be a test of truth and a tough and serious moment.”

The Catholic Church in France has taken a number of steps to tackle the scourge of sexual abuse in recent years. In 2019, the Diocese of Paris signed a protocol with the city prosecutor to allow suspected abuse to be investigated without survivors making an official complaint to the authorities.

More than half the abuses detailed in the report occurred before 1969, Sauvé told CNN, when he said the Church in France ignored abuse by people it put in power.

“This first period … is marked by absolutely total indifference of the Church towards victims. The suffering of victims, the harm (suffered by) victims, the trauma of victims, in fact, does not exist, Sauvé said.

Recommendations and compensation

The report issued 45 recommendations, including that the Church’s canon laws be revised.

“Generally, transgressions of sexual morality in the Catholic Church are associated with the sixth commandment, ‘You shall not commit adultery,'” Sauvé explained. He said that the commission’s report recommends that “the Church pay heed to the fact that sexual violence, and rape in particular of course, are a work of death, which in reality fall under the commandment ‘You shall not kill.'”

The report calls for a message to be sent that “the secret of confession cannot change the obligation … to signal cases of sexual violence inflicted on a minor or vulnerable person to judicial and administrative authorities.

The report’s summary said that “reinforcing the presence of secular figures and women in particularly in decision making spheres” of the Church “seems not only useful but necessary,” and suggested “psychological evaluation” for trainee priests.

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The Vatican revised its canon laws in June to expand explicitly forbidden sexual offenses and, in Pope Francis’s words, “reduce the number of cases in which the imposition of a penalty was left to the discretion of authorities.”

The report’s authors also recommend that the Church puts in place a mechanism to compensate the victims of sexual abuses committed by its clergy.

“We suggest that for offenses for which the statute of limitations has expired, or for which the offender is deceased, the Catholic Church put in place an independent process to officially recognize the victims,” Sauvé told CNN before the report’s publication.

“We also suggest the Catholic Church put in place a system of compensation. This isn’t about handouts or rescuing victims. It is simply about repairing the … damage that the Church has a responsibility in,” he added. “It is in fact a debt the Church owes victims.”

‘I will die with the trauma of what happened’

One of the thousands of victims who testified before the commission was Christian Dubreuil, now aged 65.

“Pedophilia is the perfect crime because it is the only one for which the criminal is sure, or almost sure, that the victim will not report them,” he told the commission in public testimony.

A senior aide to French government ministers before his retirement, Dubreuil grew up not far from Lyon. He says he was a shy and studious child in a family without much history of formal education.

Dubreuil’s abuser slipped into the family circle under the guise of furthering a bright boy’s education, he says. Every Thursday, he would pick him up and they would visit historical sites together.

Dubreuil described his abuser’s infiltration of his family as “the spinning of a spider web that traps you.”

Dubreuil remembers being abused in his family’s living room, as his parents worked in their shop below. He said the abuse lasted for nine months, starting when he was 11 and lasting beyond his twelfth birthday.

“I will die with the trauma of what happened, even though it was more than half a century ago,” he added.

Dubreuil said he hoped the report would lead the Church to admit to systemic abuse and cover-ups in France.

“They … thought there was an exception for the French religion, which supposedly meant that, a few specific cases aside, the French Church was not affected. This lie will collapse.”

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