French Catholic clergy abused hundreds of thousands of children, report finds
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Now, a major development for the French Catholic Church - and just a warning, this next report does describe sexual abuse. An independent commission that investigated allegations of systemic pedophilia in the church released its report today. And the report estimates that in the last 70 years, as many as 3,000 priests and other church workers abused hundreds of thousands of children. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, the staggering numbers have left the church and the country reeling.
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CLAUDETTE COUTURIER: (Non-English language spoken).
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Sixty-five-year-old Claudette Couturier was one of the last people interviewed by the commission. In a report on Franceinfo, she showed a framed picture of two little girls in dresses and bows - her sister and herself. She says they were raised by their alcoholic grandmother and were easy prey for three priests who took turns abusing them.
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COUTURIER: (Through interpreter) My earliest memory is of being very little and sitting on the priest's lap because he often came to my grandmother's for dinner. And he would put his hand in my underwear and put my hand in his. It started like that. But as I grew older, it got a lot worse.
BEARDSLEY: Couturier ran away at 14. She says her childhood was stolen, and she spent her whole life trying to deal with the pain. Multiply Couturier by 330,000, and you're approaching the number of people who may have been abused by priests and other church workers, says the commission. The vast majority of the victims were young boys.
XAVIER LE NORMAND: So the main feeling after the publication of this report is a state of shock. The situation is much worse than we thought, and so now we have to acknowledge that.
BEARDSLEY: That's Xavier Le Normand, a journalist with La Croix, an independent Catholic newspaper. He says the huge numbers mean sex abuse in the Catholic Church is more prevalent than in other institutions like sports clubs or private schools.
LE NORMAND: So the Catholic Church is a problem by itself, and it need (ph) to challenge that problem.
BEARDSLEY: The report says priests are often seen as heroes because of their celibacy and have too much power and easy access to children.
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UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in non-English language).
BEARDSLEY: This past Sunday at church masses across France, priests prepared their congregations for the report's release. The commission was made up of 22 people, evenly split between men and women, religious and secular. They included lawyers, doctors, historians and sociologists. For 2 1/2 years, they pored over church, court, police and press archives and interviewed victims and witnesses. A hotline received more than 6,000 calls.
UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: (Non-English language spoken).
BEARDSLEY: "Lord, give us the humility to accept the findings of this report on sexual abuse," prayed the priest at Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois in Paris. Sexual abuse scandals have been rocking the Catholic Church worldwide for the last 20 years. So why did it take France, known as the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church, so long to wake up? Bernadette Sauvaget, who covers religion for newspaper Liberation, says there was a code of silence about the sexual abuse in the church.
BERNADETTE SAUVAGET: (Through interpreter) There was an omerta around this in France, but a first wave of scandals in the early aughts lifted the lid a little.
BEARDSLEY: But the cover went back on, and the church continued to turn a blind eye. Then came the 2019 conviction of the prominent Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, who was charged with failing to report a predatory pedophile priest.
SAUVAGET: (Through interpreter) And that's when we saw the first victims' associations created. And they got huge media attention, and things took a turn for the good.
BEARDSLEY: The 2,500-page report gives 45 recommendations to the church, which today apologized to the victims. But journalist Xavier Le Normand says if the church wants to survive, it should not think the report closes the issue but see it instead as a wake-up call to totally reform the Catholic Church in France.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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