(CN) — An independent commission on Tuesday estimated at least 330,000 children within France's Catholic Church institutions were sexually abused since 1950, a finding that left the deeply Roman Catholic nation in shock and anger.
The report by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church is the culmination of two and half years of work. The commission was created upon the request of Catholic authorities in France, who were facing heavy criticism for their handling of sexual abuse scandals.
The 2,500-page report estimated that in the past 70 years there were between 2,900 and 3,200 sexual abusers within the church's clergy and associations.
It estimated that at least 216,000 children were abused by priests, deacons and other clergy and that the number of abused minors climbs to at least 330,000 when church lay members – such as teachers, catechism supervisors and youth movement leaders – are included. The estimates were based on an in-depth review of archives and demographics.
“These numbers are more than worrying, they are overwhelming and can in no way go unanswered,” said Jean-Marc Sauve, the commission's president, at a news conference on Tuesday.
Sauve, a respected high-ranking civil servant, said the church disregarded the complaints of victims for far too long. He called the abuse systemic and said the church repeatedly failed to take action against perpetrators. Most of the victims were boys, the report said.
“Until the early 2000s the Catholic Church showed a profound and even cruel indifference towards the victims,” he said, according to the Guardian newspaper.
The report was France's first comprehensive reckoning with sexual abuse committed by its Catholic clergy. France joins a growing number of countries where investigations have revealed pervasive sexual abuse of children by clergy. The Catholic Church has been rocked by reports of widespread sexual abuse in the United States, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Poland and other countries.
Pope Francis felt “immense sorrow” for the victims and expressed his “gratitude for their courage to speak out,” according to Matteo Bruni, a Vatican spokesman.
In May 2019, Francis issued a new church law requiring all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities.
Church leaders in France said they felt “shame” over the report's findings and asked for forgiveness.
The report was delivered in Paris to French bishops, religious orders and congregations. Victims associations were also present.
“My desire today is to ask your forgiveness,” said Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, the president of the Conference of Bishops of France. He called the number of victims overwhelming.
Francois Devaux, co-founder of a victims association called La Parole Liberee, or The Liberated Word, said at the news conference that the Catholic Church as an institution must take responsibility and he called for sweeping changes. He decried the church for covering up what he called “mass crimes for decades.”
“You are a disgrace for our humanity,” Devaux said, speaking directly to church leaders. “You must pay for all of these crimes.”
Devaux's association represents victims of Bernard Preynat, a defrocked priest who was convicted last year on charges of sexually assaulting dozens of Boy Scouts from the 1970s to the 1990s. Cardinal Philippe Babarin was convicted, and then acquitted on appeal, of covering up his abuse.
But Devaux praised the commission for its work and called the report “a turning point in our history.”
The commission urged the church to financially compensate victims and institute a number of steps to prevent further abuse, including better training for priests and overhauling the way the church is governed.
Sauve said 22 alleged crimes that can be pursued have been forwarded to prosecutors. More than 40 cases that are too old to be prosecuted but involve alleged perpetrators who are still alive have been forwarded to church officials.
French church leaders have promised to compensate and help victims. A hotline launched at the beginning of the review received 6,500 calls from alleged victims or people who said they knew a victim.
The commission's experts included psychologists, historians, sociologists, jurists and others. They worked with victims, examined church and police records, scoured news archives and held numerous hearings.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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