An investigation into sexual abuse in the French Catholic Church has found that an estimated 216,000 children were victims of abuse by clergy since 1950, says Jean-Marc Sauve, head of the commission that compiled the report.
The revelations in France are the latest to rock the Roman Catholic Church, after a series of sexual abuse scandals around the world, often involving children, over the past 20 years.
The abuse was systemic, Mr Sauve said at a public, online presentation of the report, adding that the Church had shown “deep, total and even cruel indifference for years,” protecting itself rather than the victims.
The church not only did not take the necessary measures to prevent abuse but also turned a blind eye, failing to report abuse and sometimes knowingly putting children in touch with predators, he said on Tuesday.
Speaking just after Mr Sauve at the presentation of the report, the archbishop of Reims and head of the French conference of bishops, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, spoke of shame, asked for forgiveness and promised to act.
The commission was established by Catholic bishops in France at the end of 2018 to shed light on abuses and restore public confidence in the Church at a time of dwindling congregations. It has worked independently from the Church.
Mr Sauve said the problem was still there. He added that the church had until the 2000s shown complete indifference to victims and that it only started to really change its attitude in 2015-2016.
The Catholic Church’s teaching on subjects such as sexuality, obedience and the sanctity of the priesthood helped created blind spots which allowed sexual abuse by clergy to happen, Mr Sauve said, adding that the church needed to reform the way it approached those issues to rebuild trust with society.
Mr Sauve said the commission itself had identified about 2700 victims through a call for testimony, and thousands more had been found in archives.
But a wide-ranging study by research and polling groups estimated that there had been about 216,000 victims, and the number could rise to 330,000 when including abuse by lay members.
There have been about 2900 to 3200 suspected pedophiles in the French Church over the past 70 years, Mr Sauve said.
“You are a disgrace to our humanity,” Francois Devaux, who set up victims’ association La Parole Liberee, told church representatives at the public presentation of the report, before Mr Sauve took the floor.
“In this hell there have been abominable mass crimes … but there has been even worse, betrayal of trust, betrayal of morale, betrayal of children,” Mr Devaux said, also accusing the Church of cowardice.
He thanked the commission, saying he hoped the report would prove a turning point: “You finally bring victims an institutional recognition of the responsibility of the church.”