Photo credit: Josh Applegate of Unsplash

Independent commission uncovers sexual assault of over 200,000 minors by French Catholic clergy

5 mins read

An investigation led by a former judge confirms European courts dismiss lawsuits from survivors. Yet, the Vatican cannot be sued because it is a sovereign state.

In recent decades, the exposé of the Catholic Church’s long history of sexual abuse has been scandalous on all fronts. Once, a popular unsavory generational rumor or even a tone of dark humor by stand-up comedians is now evidenced as a regular ordeal. 

In 2018, Christian Testimonies journalist Christine Pedotti started a petition calling for a parliamentary commission to investigate sex crimes and pedophilia in France’s Catholic church. She explained why the wrongdoers get away with their crimes stating that “the focus is on the guilty party and never on the victim.” 

Pedotti continued by adding that confusing crime with sin is what made the church unable to focus on the victims. Following the petition, socialist and communist parliamentarians came out in favor of the proposal. 

An independent inquiry headed by respected former judge Jean-Marc Sauve was commissioned by the French Catholic Church in 2018. The commission comprised 22 people from different professional backgrounds. For more than two-and-a-half years the committee scrutinized the courts and church records, whilst speaking to victims and witnesses.

Night mass in the Catholic Church. Photo credit: Z I of Unpslash

The commission uncovered more than 200,000 minors have been victims of sexual abuse by over 3,000 French Catholic clergy members since 1950. When taking into account abuses committed by lay members of the Church, such as teachers at Catholic schools, the number skyrockets to 330,000

About 80 percent of victims were boys from a wide variety of social backgrounds. Some have claimed that sexual abuse is so rampant in the Church that these numbers are probably an underestimation.

 “[T]here was above all a catalog of negligence, failures, silence, [and] an institutional cover-up which appears systematic,” spoke Suave about the report. He added that they came to enormous conclusions. Namely, the church did not see, hear or know how to pick up weak signals.

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Suave mentioned that the church not only failed to take necessary preventive measures, but also turned a blind eye to abuse and sometimes knowingly put children in touch with predators.

“This education, this indoctrination with the alibi of serving God and religion, with this alibi, they allow themselves all sorts of intellectual and physical manipulations,” victim Jean Francois revealed during a BBC interview. 

Many victims chose silence as some were blamed for leading the priest to sin once they came forward with allegations. In some cases, victims became the subject of disapproval in the Church. To add on, some of the abused were sent home from the diocese.

Once a pastor in the Archdiocese of New York, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick allegedly used his position to sexually abuse minors. Now, he is undergoing court proceedings for charges including three counts of indecent assault and battery on a person over the age of 14. Known for representing alleged victims of childhood sexual assault, attorney Jeff Anderson referred to McCarrick as a “serial offender well-known to us.” In 2019, McCarrick was dismissed from the clerical state by Pope Francis.

Latin mass. Photo credit: Z I of Unsplash

What next?

The inquiry found that about 60 percent of the men and women who were abused had gone on to “encounter major problems in their emotional or sexual lives.”

The report also unearthed that sexual abuse in the Catholic church was higher than in other institutions such as state schools. So much so, a prominent cardinal, Reinhard Marx, offered his resignation letter to Pope Francis, claiming a mishandling of child sex abuse cases. 

“I have to share responsibility for the catastrophe of sexual abuse by officials of the church over past decades,” he wrote in the letter.

Marx said that the church had reached a dead end and his resignation was a way of helping to indicate the possibility of a new start. His resignation was later denied by the Church’s head.

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In a bid to clean up the mess, Pope Francis changed Catholic laws to lay out clear penalties for the sexual abuse of minors by priests. In it, the regulations explicitly criminalized the sexual abuse of adults victims. So far, the changes are the biggest overhaul of the Catholic criminal code for nearly 40 years.

The new rules state that laypeople holding church positions, such as school principals, can be sanctioned for similar sex crimes. Included, the law removes much of the discretion previously allowed to religious superiors in ignoring or covering up misconduct. Beforehand, the Church shrouded sexual abuse cases in secrecy, in what it said was an effort to protect the victims’ privacy and the reputations of the accused.

Speaking during his regular audience at the Vatican, Pope Francis expressed sadness and pain for the trauma of the victims. He emphasized disgrace by expounding that, “it is also my shame, our shame for the incapacity of the [C]hurch for too long to put them at the center of its concerns.”

St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Photo credit: Red Morley Hewitt of Unsplash


The French Church has previously announced a plan for “financial contributions” to victims, beginning next year.

Twenty-two of the alleged crimes, which can still be pursued for legal action, are in the possession of French prosecutors. Forty cases where the statute of limitations are no longer valid, but the alleged perpetrators are living, were sent on to church officials.

On October 12, The European Court of Human Rights in the French eastern city of Strasbourg ruled that the Vatican cannot be sued in European courts because it is a sovereign state. 

Decades ago, the Pope did not want to be under the influence of Italy. For this, under the 1929 Lateran treaty, the Vatican could exist on its own. As a result, the Pope makes his decisions independently of other governments, thus would not have to worry about the influence of other leaders.

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Under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that everyone is entitled to a fair trial, survivors argued they were denied the right of access to a court.

However, the court’s decision is not final. Any party can request an appeal, known as a “Grand Chamber review,” within three months of the ruling. Such prospects remain in the case of former French priest Bernard Preynat. In 2020, he got five years in prison after admitting to sexually abusing dozens of boy scouts under the age of sixteen. On average, he abused four or five victims a week. With this, the hope for justice prevails.

Although most of the abusers are dead, the Church appears to stand with the victims. Unlike before, more and more victims are bravely coming forward, providing coverage for global scrutiny. Despite that, new penalties might be the beginning of what seems to be a wistful end as the debate on persecution continues.

Nyawira Mithayo is a Journalism graduate with an interest in community activism.

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