(CN) — It was a sight never seen before in France: A Roman Catholic Church cardinal walked into a courtroom Monday to face allegations that he covered up a priest’s sexual abuse.
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, appeared in a Lyon court along with five other defendants from his diocese accused of covering up sexual abuse by a priest in the 1980s and 1990s. He sat silently, as if in prayer, during the court proceedings, news media reported.
The 68-year-old archbishop once was considered a contender to become pope. His trial is the highest-profile case so far in France over the Catholic Church’s global sex abuse scandal.
Pope Francis in February will meet with senior bishops in Rome to discuss how to protect children. The pope is facing strong criticism that he has a blind spot when it comes to sexual abuse in the church.
Among those accused in the French case is Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the Vatican’s top official in charge of sex abuse cases. But he did not appear because the Vatican invoked his diplomatic immunity, according to The Associated Press.
The case in Lyon involves allegations of sexual abuse of young male scouts by the Rev. Bernard Preynat. Preynat is due to go on trial later this year.
Barbarin is accused of failing to report the allegations of sexual abuse by Preynat. The cardinal faces three years in prison and fines of up to $51,000. He denies the allegations.
On Monday, an attorney for the accused blasted the proceedings as a “show trial.”
“This trial is a show trial; there are more journalists present in the room than the public,” Xavier Vahramian, a defense attorney, said, according to French media. The defense tried to get the case dismissed Monday on procedural grounds.
Barbarin has said he took away Preynat’s duties as a priest in 2015 after learning of his abuse in 2007.
François Devaux, one of the alleged victims of sexual abuse by Preynat, told Euronews, a television broadcaster, that the trauma of sexual abuse “changes your life.”
He said his activism in exposing sexual abuse by priests helped him to not become “scarred forever.”
“Cardinal Barbarin is a litigant like everyone else and he must be judged for his actions,” Devaux told Euronews. He runs a victims group called La Parole Libérée.
Nine complainants were able to get the case against Barbarin reopened after prosecutors dropped it in 2016 due to insufficient evidence and because the allegations were considered too old to prosecute.
Barbarin’s attorney, Jean-Felix Luciani, argues that the archbishop cannot be found guilty of obstruction of justice because of the statute of limitations had passed by the time the archbishop was told of the sexual abuse.
But the victims accuse top churchmen of knowing about Preynat’s actions for years and doing nothing about it.
There are about 200 cardinals around the world and they are among the most powerful figures in the Catholic Church. In recent years, the church has been rocked by allegations that numerous cardinals covered up abuse or committed abuse themselves. The most recent scandals involve clergymen in Pennsylvania, Australia and Chile.
Thus, the trial of Barbarin simply adds to the Catholic Church’s deep institutional crisis and shines an unfavorable light on Pope Francis, who has defended Barbarin in the past.
In 2016, the pope told the Catholic newspaper La Croix that Barbarin “took appropriate measures” in dealing with the accusations of sexual abuse.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)