An estimated 330,000 children were victims of sex abuse within France’s Catholic Church over the past 70 years, according to a major report.
The figure includes abuses committed by 3,000 priests and other people involved in the church — wrongdoing that Catholic authorities covered up over decades in a “systemic manner”, according to the president of the commission that issued the report, Jean-Marc Sauve.
The head of the French bishops conference asked forgiveness from victims, and is meeting to discuss next steps.
The commission urged the church to take strong action, denouncing “faults” and “silence”. It also called on the French state to help compensate victims, notably in cases that are too old to prosecute through the courts.
About 80% of the victims were boys.
“The consequences are very serious,” Mr Sauve said. “About 60% of men and women who were sexually abused encounter major problems in their sentimental or sexual life.”
The 2,500-page document prepared by an independent commission comes as the Catholic Church in France, like in other countries, seeks to face up to shameful secrets that were long covered up.
Victims welcomed the report as long overdue.
Francois Devaux, head of victims’ group La Parole Liberee, said it was “a turning point in our history”.
He denounced the cover-ups that permitted “mass crimes for decades”, and added: “But even worse, there was a betrayal: betrayal of trust, betrayal of morality, betrayal of children, betrayal of innocence.”
Olivier Savignac, head of victims’ association Parler et Revivre, who contributed to the investigation, told the Associated Press that the high ratio of victims per abuser is particularly “terrifying for French society, for the Catholic Church”.
He condemned the church for treating such cases as individual anomalies as opposed to a collective horror. He described being abused at the age of 13 by the director of a Catholic holiday camp in the south of France, who also was accused of assaulting several other boys.
“I perceived this priest as someone who was good, a caring person who would not harm me,” Mr Savignac said.
“But it was when I found myself on that bed half-naked and he was touching me that I realised something was wrong. And we keep this, it’s like a growing cyst, it’s like gangrene inside the victim’s body and the victim’s psyche.”
The commission worked for two and half years, listening to victims and witnesses and studying church, court, police and press archives starting from the 1950s.
A hotline launched at the beginning of the investigation received 6,500 calls from alleged victims or people who said they knew a victim.
Mr Sauve denounced the church’s attitude until the beginning of the 2000s as “a deep, cruel indifference toward victims”.
The report said an estimated 3,000 child abusers — two-thirds of them priests — worked in the church during that period. Mr Sauve said the overall figure of victims includes an estimated 216,000 people abused by priests and other clerics.
“Sometimes church officials did not denounce (sex abuses) and even exposed children to risks by putting them in contact with predators,” Mr Sauve said. “We consider… the church has a debt toward victims.”
The president of the Conference of Bishops of France, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, said “we are appalled” at the conclusions of the report.
“I wish on that day to ask for pardon, pardon to each of you,” he told the victims.
Mr Sauve said 22 alleged crimes that can still 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.
The commission issued 45 recommendations about how to prevent abuse. These included training priests and other clerics, revising Canon Law — the legal code the Vatican uses to govern the church — and fostering policies to recognise and compensate victims.