(CN) — A French Roman Catholic cardinal was found guilty Thursday of covering up a priest’s sexual abuse and was handed a six-month suspended prison sentence.
After the verdict, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, said he would resign within days. His lawyer said he would appeal.
Barbarin was convicted of failing to report allegations of sexual abuse of male scouts by the Rev. Bernard Preynat in the 1980s and 1990s. Preynat, who has admitted to the abuse, is due to go on trial later this year.
The 68-year-old archbishop once was considered a contender to become pope. His trial in January was the highest-profile case so far in France over the Catholic Church’s global sex abuse scandal.
Barbarin’s conviction came just two weeks after it was disclosed that Cardinal George Pell was convicted by a jury in Australia of sexual offenses against two choirboys in 1996. Pell was one of the highest-ranking officials in the Vatican, serving as its treasurer.
Barbarin denies the allegations and at trial his attorney blasted the proceedings as a “show trial.” The defense tried to get the case dismissed on procedural grounds. His lawyers told French media on Thursday that the cardinal would appeal.
“I never sought to hide, even less to cover up these horrible acts,” the cardinal said during the trial.
Barbarin said he took away Preynat’s duties as a priest in 2015, but also said he’d learned of the abuse in 2007. At trial, he said he took no action against Preynat in 2007 because he had not received a complaint against the priest.
Victims or priestly abuse hailed the conviction as a major victory.
“The responsibility and guilt of the cardinal have been confirmed by this judgment. It’s an extraordinary symbol, a moment of huge emotion,” an attorney for the victims, Yves Sauvayre, said after the verdict, according to The Guardian newspaper.
A group of victims 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, argued that the archbishop could not be found guilty of obstruction of justice because the statute of limitations had passed by the time the archbishop was told of the sexual abuse.
But the victims accused top churchmen of knowing about Preynat’s actions for years and doing nothing about it. Five other churchmen accused of covering up the abuse were acquitted Thursday.
There are about 200 cardinals around the world, who 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 conviction of Barbarin adds to the Catholic Church’s deep institutional crisis and shines an unfavorable light on Pope Francis, who 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.
In February, the pope held a summit with cardinals, senior bishops and church officials in Rome to lay out measures to protect children, but many victims’ groups called the summit a failure. The pope faces strong criticism that he has a blind spot when it comes to sexual abuse in the church.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)