PARIS (RNS) — Like any modern Catholic official, Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of France’s Catholic bishops’ conference, realizes clergy sexual abuse is a systemic problem, one that calls for serious reform of the church’s uncertain rules and ingrained secrecy.
But recent revelations of sexual misconduct by a cardinal and a bishop on Moulins-Beaufort’s watch show how complicated, time-consuming and personal stamping out abuse can be.
These new cases, which come a year after a report that estimated that France had seen 330,000 ordained and lay abusers since 1950, have tangled Moulins-Beaufort in a web, caught between falling public confidence in the bishops’ ability to solve the problem — which only increases the pressure to act — and a pope who firmly condemns clerical sexual abuse but offers only vague guidance when faced with concrete cases.
The revelations last week, both involving popular and well-respected clerics, were bigger than any cases to date.
Bishop Michel Santier of Créteil, an eastern suburb of Paris, had a reputation as a prelate open to other faiths and to people sidelined in the church. In 2020, he took early retirement, citing health reasons, but it turned out he had admitted to Pope Francis in 2019 that he had made at least two young men do a striptease as part of a confession. Only after Santier later repeated his admission to his successor did the Vatican impose canonical restrictions on him.
The story finally came out in a Catholic magazine in October, forcing Moulins-Beaufort to acknowledge that he also knew the facts but could not publicize them because the Vatican hadn’t.
Three weeks later, Moulins-Beaufort read out a letter from Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, who was twice elected head of the French bishops’ conference in the 2000s, confessed that he had “acted in a reprehensible way with a 14-year-old girl” 35 years ago.
When Moulins-Beaufort unveiled the Ricard scandal, it came to light that several church leaders had been informed but had taken months to inform French law enforcement or the Vatican. Bishop Dominique Blanchet, who took over from Santier, later described how he tried to keep a distance from his popular predecessor without divulging the reason. “I was in an untenable position,” he said.
French Catholic leaders initially played down clerical abuse when news of U.S. cases made headlines in The Boston Globe two decades ago, but the issue has now gone far beyond the “few bad apples” stage.
“Neither ordination nor honors protect someone from making mistakes, including some legally serious ones,” a worn-down Moulins-Beaufort said at the end of the French bishops’ Nov. 3-8 plenary session in Lourdes. “Every person can be haunted by troubled forces that he does not always manage to control.”