The Church faces its sexual predators

The Sauv report counts 3,000 priests and religious pedocriminals, the majority of the actions having taken place before the 1970s. It also denounces the “responsibility of the Church”, between indifference and institutional cover. Will she be able to draw the consequences from this scandal?

Cline Braud is director of studies atEHESS. Her research focuses on issues of gender and sexuality in Catholicism, as well as the place of religion in public institutions. She published, in collaboration, Catholicism in tension (d. EHESS2012) and Religion in prison (PURE2016) as well as, more recently, French Catholicism tested by sexual scandals (Threshold, 2021).

The Life of Ideas : Where does the Sauv report come from?

Cline Braud: Jean-Marc Sauv, a retired senior civil servant whose independence and moral qualities have continued to be praised, was entrusted in the fall of 2018 by the Conference of Bishops of France (Cef) and by the Conference of Religious Men and Women of France (Corref ), the conduct of an independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (Ciase).

Such an initiative is in no way original, if we compare it to what happened in other countries with a majority Catholic tradition in which sexual scandals broke out earlier than in France and where investigations were commissioned from academics. The French episcopate was confronted with a series of cases at the turn of the 2000s: we remember in particular the Pican affair, this bishop convicted in 2001 for non-denunciation of sexual assaults and crimes against minors committed by one of the priests of his diocese. The bishops then took a certain number of measures.

For around fifteen years, the French bishops wrongly believed that they were going through a less acute crisis than those which unfolded in other countries, such as the United States, Ireland or even Australia. In 2015-2016, it is from the diocese of Lyon that the French assessment will be re-examined, in particular due to La Parole libre, an association which brought together victims of Bernard Preynat whose actions were known to various bishops including Philippe Barbarin who succd.

At the beginning of 2019, we witnessed the publication of a series of revelations, each of which seemed more damning than the last, and which showed that adults, nuns in particular, were also victims of sexual violence. The scandal then broke out. A strong collective motion seized the Catholics, many of whom expressed their indignation. It is no longer a question of a few “bad apples”, but of a term system that we find in the analyzes of the Sauv report which has allowed not only for such acts to be committed, but also for their perpetrators to benefit from the silence, or even the complicity, of the institution.

It is in this context, where the failure of the bishops is pointed out, that the creation of the Ciase was decided. Jean-Marc Sauv is asked to take stock of the facts (from the 1950s to the present day), to propose an analysis and to formulate recommendations for the future. The commission, established a few months later, which has financial resources allocated and whose independence is guaranteed, brings together researchers who will develop a socio-historical approach led by Philippe Portier (by working on the archives of the dioceses), an approach sociological approach developed by Nathalie Bajos (based on interviews with 250 victims and a vast quantitative survey) and an anthropological approach led by Latitia Atlani-Duault (based on work on the media).

One of the strengths of the commission, whose work was delayed by a few months by the health crisis, is to have placed at the heart of its work the testimonies of the victims, among whom it aroused very high expectations.

The Life of Ideas : What are the conclusions of the report and what is its diagnosis?

Cline Braud: The picture that is drawn up is dark and even chilling. The report lists 330,000 people who were minors who have been victims of sexual violence in the Catholic Church in France since 1950. There are also more than 3,000 priests and religious pedocriminals, a figure which Ciase recognizes is certainly underestimated. The majority of these actions took place between the 1950s and the 1970s, when the clergy was still numerous and the younger generations were frequenting Catholic structures intended for their age group in large numbers (catchism, patronage, scouting, chaplaincies, movements youth, etc.).

The other important quantitative result is the following: going against the relativization discourse that we were beginning to (re)hear internally, it has been established that the prevalence of sexual violence in ecclesial structures is higher than that measured in other non-religious institutions welcoming children ( like sports clubs). Jean-Marc Sauv points to the “responsibility of the Church”, between indifference towards the victims and “institutional cover” from which the perpetrators of violence benefited.

He calls for “strong measures”. Among these are those relating to “reparations”: by recognizing the status of victims to people for whom the facts are prescribed, by compensating victims with whom “the Church has contracted a debt”. Finally, Jean-Marc Sauv expressly calls for a reform of church law on the following points: powers of the bishop in his diocese, place of victims in canonical trials, secrecy of confession or even sexual morality.

The Life of Ideas : What will be the consequences of the Sauv report within the Church and beyond?

Cline Braud: From the perspective of my book, French Catholicism tested by sexual scandals (Seuil, 2021), we can wonder, on the one hand, whether the Sauv report will put an end to the scandal or on the contrary relaunch it and, on the other hand and this is of course linked, whether or not the scandal will lead to major institutional transformations.

In 2018-2019, the outbreak of the scandal sparked the mobilization of Catholics, including several women theologians, who spoke out to demand, sometimes well beyond the already important points raised by Jean-Marc Sauv, a reform of the modalities of exercise of authority in Catholicism: rethinking the relationship between clerics and lay people, making more room for women, reformulating the magisterial discourse on sexuality.

It is, at this stage, still too early to precisely assess the reception of the report in French Catholicism. The bishops, who come through the president of the bishops' conference to express their “shame” and their “terror” and to formulate a request for “forgiveness”, fear the new shock wave that the Sauv report is likely to produce and certainly to new revelations which, on this occasion, could come to light. For several months, and even more so for several weeks, they have been trying to regain control, sometimes clumsily, as they did after their spring assembly. They then formulated eleven resolutions, five months before the submission of the Ciase report, and thus gave the impression of trying to short-circuit its work in order to “turn the page”.

Today, as the conclusions of the Sauv commission are made public, it seems to me that the episcopate will have to confront a series of questions. It is first of all the financial issues that will arise. How will the amounts of sums paid to victims be determined? Jean-Marc Sauv spoke out against any flat-rate solution, an option hitherto favored by the episcopate. Who will pay ? At the end of 2019, Cef appealed to the generosity of the faithful in order to raise the necessary funds for a “financial gesture” towards the victims, which was very poorly received. The question also arises of the reforms that the bishops of France will accept or not, some moreover not coming from the bishops' conference, but from Rome.

The victims and their associations played the role of whistleblowers and contributed to the scandal breaking. They remain mobilized. We see this with Franois Devaux, one of the founders of La Parole libre, who has increased his speeches in recent days. It is more broadly Catholic opinion, unworthy from 2018-2019, which will be decisive.

Whatever the case, the German case, which had attracted attention in France, invites nuance. In the wake of sexual scandals which broke out in Germany a few years before France, an ambitious “synodal path” was set up by the bishops' conference, in partnership with lay organizations. It turns out to be disappointing today, as denounced by Cardinal Marx, a reformist bishop, who presented his resignation to the pope a few months ago and thus denounced the “failure” of the German Church in the face of the “catastrophe of sexual abuse” and the “ impasse” in which it finds itself, due to the opposition of certain prelates to any change.