Cardinal’s cover-up trial a reckoning for French Catholics

LYON, France (AP) — The Roman Catholic Church faces another public reckoning when a French cardinal goes on trial Monday for his alleged failure to report a pedophile priest who confessed to preying on Boy Scouts and whose victims want to hold one of France’s highest church figures accountable.

Nine alleged victims of the Rev. Bernard Preynat have summoned Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, 68, as a defendant in France’s most prominent clergy sex abuse case yet. Another archbishop, a bishop and the Vatican official in charge of sex abuse cases also are among the defendants ordered to court in the southeastern city of Lyon to answer allegations of a cover-up.

“This trial is an action to move justice forward,” said Alexandre Hezez, 44, who spoke to the cardinal directly about Preynat and is among those who brought the case to trial.

Barbarin sought counsel on how to handle abuse accusations against Preynat from the Vatican official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who recommended disciplinary measures while “avoiding a public scandal.” However, Ladaria won’t be present during the three-day trial since the Vatican has invoked his diplomatic immunity.

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It could not extend the same protection to Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon since 2002. Pope Francis has praised him as “brave” and said French justice should take its course.

Barbarin, who maintains his innocence, encouraged Preynat’s alleged victims to take their reports of being abused during the 1970s and 1980s to judicial authorities. Preynat, who is in his 70s, wrote letters to some families confessing the abuse, and is to be tried separately on sexual violence charges involving 10 children.

The victims’ allegation of a cover-up that allowed Preynat to be in contact with children until his 2015 retirement was thrown out in 2016 for insufficient evidence. They took the matter into their own hands and put it back on the docket through a direct approach available as a recourse in France.

The difficulty in bringing the case to trial reflects the challenges that victims of clergy abuse encounter. It also comes as demands are soaring for a public reckoning for both abusers and those in the church hierarchy who hid such acts.

“There has been a dramatic change in the zeitgeist. The #MeToo movement has come for the pope and his bishops,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a victims’ group. “The demands for accountability and transparency are coming faster than the Vatican can contain them.”

For his part, Barbarin “expects to be acquitted,” his lawyer, Jean-Felix Luciani, said in an interview.

He said his client “never obstructed justice” because the statute of limitations had passed on the acts in question by the time Barbarin was informed.

“The tableau depicting the Lyon diocese as protecting Father Preynat is false,” Luciani said. “It’s very difficult for him to be accused of things he didn’t know about.”

If found guilty of failing to report the priest’s actions, the defendants could face up to three years in prison and a 45,000-euro ($51,300) fine. Barbarin and some other defendants are also charged with failing to assist a person in peril.

Numerous child sex abuse claims have been made against Catholic clergy in France since the end of the 1990s. In a first in Europe, a Normandy bishop, Pierre Pican, in charge of Bayeux and Lisieux, was given a suspended three-month sentence in 2001 for failure to denounce such crimes. The priest in question, Rene Bisset, was given an 18-year prison term.

Years of news about the Lyon case — due to the dozens of heinous acts alleged by victims and the high stature of Barbarin — have cast a shadow over the diocese and the French Catholic Church. Last November, the Bishops of France created an ambitious commission aimed at shedding light on sexual abuse of minors in the church since 1950. A report is due in 2020.

That same month, however, a Catholic priest claimed he was punished by church leaders in France after he gathered more than 100,000 signatures for a petition urging Barbarin to resign over his handling of the Preynat case.

The Rev. Pierre Vignon said he was told he’ll no longer be considered for the church court where he has served as a judge since 2002. The 12 bishops overseeing southeast France where he ministers gave no reason. But for Vignon, it showed that church leaders are still divided about how to deal with sexual predators in the clergy and the whistleblowers who demand action against them.

For Barrett Doyle, the trial will put accountability for alleged injustice into the hands of the law.

“Whatever the outcome of the case against Barbarin, his presence in a secular courtroom … will mark the victory of the rule of civil law over the Vatican’s failed strategy of containment and secrecy,” she said.

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Nicole Winfield in Rome, and Elaine Ganley in Paris, contributed to this report.

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