French cardinal to quit after being convicted of covering up sex abuse
PARIS – A Catholic cardinal offered his resignation on Thursday after being found guilty by a French court of covering up decades-old sexual abuse by a priest in his diocese, a surprise victory for the priest’s accusers, who had forced the case to trial after it was dropped by prosecutors.
The conviction of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, was the first in France against such a highprofile clergyman, adding to a long list of sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church just weeks after a landmark meeting at the Vatican ended without a concrete plan to tackle the issue.
Barbarin, 68, was found guilty of failing to report child abuse by the Rev. Bernard Preynat to the authorities from 2014 to 2015, after parishioners accused the priest of sexually abusing dozens of Boy Scouts in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The court handed down a six-month suspended prison sentence to Barbarin who had faced up to three years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros, nearly $51,000. His lawyers said they would appeal.
The cardinal said later on Thursday that he would meet with Pope Francis in the coming days to submit his resignation.
“I want to repeat my compassion for the victims,” he said at a news conference in Lyon, where the trial was held.
The Vatican did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Francois Devaux, one of Preynat’s accusers, told reporters that the verdict was significant. “I think that this sends a very strong signal that no one is above the law,” he said.
“It is a great victory for the protection of children,” Devaux added.
The cardinal had always denied that there had been a cover-up, arguing that the victims were adults when he learned of the abuse and that it was not his place to go to the authorities on their behalf.
At the trial, which included emotional testimony from Preynat’s accusers, the cardinal said he had even encouraged one of them to get in touch with other victims and stressed that he had followed the Vatican’s instructions in dealing with the case.
One church official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, who had told Barbarin to discipline the priest and to keep him away from children “while avoiding any public scandal,” was cited in the case, but the Vatican refused to let him testify.
Prosecutors dropped the charges in 2016 after an investigation, but nine of Preynat’s accusers used a special procedure to force the cardinal and five other French church officials and employees of the diocese to stand trial.
The five other defendants, who were facing the same charges as Barbarin, were found not guilty by the court.
Preynat was a Boy Scout leader in the Lyon region from 1972 to 1991. He admitted to some sexual abuse in letters to the families of the victims and was charged in 2016 after a separate investigation. He could stand trial this year.
The accusers said that Barbarin had been slow to take action after he learned about the abuse by Preynat, who was removed from office only in August 2015, years after the first allegations against him surfaced and months after the cardinal was approached by one of the priest’s accusers.
Victims also argued that the cardinal had a legal responsibility to warn the French authorities even though the abuse had occurred decades ago, on his predecessors’ watch.
Yves Sauvayre, a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs, said that the ruling was a “turning point in the fight of these people who remained silent for years.”
“Victims will no longer be afraid,” Sauvayre told reporters. It would no longer be the case, Sauvayre said, that “because there are important people, powerful people, they won’t be held accountable.”
Last year, the bishops’ conference of France created an independent commission to shed light on sexual abuse in the French clergy, and a report is expected in 2021.
Barbarin, one of the bestknown Catholic figures in France, was appointed to his post in the Lyon Diocese in 2002. He is an outspoken and media-savvy conservative who has publicly denounced the legalization of same-sex marriage and is heavily involved in interreligious dialogue.
In Thursday’s ruling, the court said that the cardinal had shown “inertia” in failing to report the abuse, despite being aware that several victims had not yet come forward.