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Church in France reels from new abuse, cover-up allegations

Two more bishops were accused of sexual abuse while heading the church's main missionary organization
The bishops of the CEF (Conference des eveques de France) attend a mass during the annual conference of bishops of France at the basilica, in the sanctuary of Our Lady, which will have a special focus on the questions raised by the Sauve report concerning pedophilia in the French Catholic Church, in Lourdes, on Nov. 2, 2021

The bishops of the CEF (Conference des eveques de France) attend a mass during the annual conference of bishops of France at the basilica, in the sanctuary of Our Lady, which will have a special focus on the questions raised by the Sauve report concerning pedophilia in the French Catholic Church, in Lourdes, on Nov. 2, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

Published: June 16, 2023 06:03 AM GMT
Updated: June 16, 2023 06:06 AM GMT

French church leaders have appealed for patience and fairness in establishing the truth, after two more bishops were accused of sexual abuse while heading the church's main missionary organization.

"The charges are serious, and both categorically deny them," said Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, the bishops' conference president.

"The voice of complainants must be heard, the rights of defendants respected, and it is now up to the investigations to ascertain the whole truth. … My thoughts and prayers go out to all those who may be suffering," he said in a June 13 statement.

The bishops' conference president was reacting to June 13 joint reports in three Catholic newspapers that prosecutors were investigating alleged offenses by Bishop Georges Colomb of La Rochelle-Saintes and Auxiliary Bishop Gilles Reithinger of Strasbourg during their time heading the Society of Paris Foreign Missions (MEP).

Archbishop Beaufort said that Bishop Colomb had asked the Vatican to suspend him during the investigations "to allow him to prepare his defense calmly," adding that anyone with information on the case could contact the Vatican's nunciature.

However, a clerical abuse victim and activist for survivors' rights told OSV News the latest accusations showed the French church was still not "cleansed" of sexual criminality, despite much-publicized countermeasures.

"A fuller accounting of conscience is needed in line with the Biblical message and the duties and pledges of the church," said François Devaux, co-founder of the Parole Libérée (Liberated Word) association, formed in 2015.

"The church hasn't only made mistakes -- it's also perpetrated deceptions, lies, insinuations and dissimulations, hampering the truth and avoiding what is said in the Gospel. Once again, we see people in authority embodying all the church's shortcomings," he said.

In coordinated reports, the three newspapers -- La Croix, La Vie and Famille Chrétienne -- said Bishop Colomb had been under investigation since May 24 for "attempted rape" while he was superior-general of the MEP 2010-2016. The organization has sent over 4,000 missionary priests to Asia and the Indian Ocean since its founding in 1658, of which 23 became saints.

They said a lay Catholic, identified as Nicolas, had reported an act of "sexual aggression," which happened in 2013 at the MEP's Paris headquarters by then-Father Colomb, but added that the then-Father Reithinger, Father Colomb's successor as superior-general, to whom the case was reported, had taken no action.

Another MEP priest, Father Aymeric de Salvert, had been suspended from ministry in France's Angers Diocese after being arrested April 5 for allegedly abusing a French expatriate while serving in Japan, the newspapers reported.

In an April 13 message to his La Rochelle-Saintes Diocese, Bishop Colomb said he was "stupefied" by the allegations, which he "totally denied," but also feared the "trouble and suffering" they would cause.

The 70-year-old Bishop Colomb said he would remain head of the diocese while an administrator took charge, and would cooperate with investigators while helping local Catholics "continue living in communion and bearing witness to the Good News."

Meanwhile, the MEP's current superior-general, Father Vincent Sénéchal, told La Vie seven MEP clergy, living and deceased, had been investigated for abuse, adding that he believed it was unfair to speak of a "network" of wrongdoing.

The priest said that after its July 2022 general assembly, the MEP had commissioned an independent inquiry into the files of 1,247 priests working in its missions since 1950, which it would report by the end of 2023.

The inquiry, by GCPS Consulting, which also investigated France's L'Arche International community and its leader, Jean Vanier, would complement investigations by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (CIASE), and also look at "dichotomies" between rules and protocols applied in France and those of mission countries, Father Sénéchal said.

"Our missionaries, sometimes posted for more than 20 years in another culture, are not always aware of the dangers," the MEP superior-general told La Vie.

"Besides an inventory of any past and present abuses, we also want an analysis of our practices and the systems we've put in place to fight against abuse."

Firmer anti-abuse measures throughout the French church were recommended in October 2021 by the CIASE commission, which estimated 330,000 children had been abused by Catholic priests and church employees since the 1950s.

French dioceses are selling assets to finance compensation payments in line with the CIASE's 45 recommendations, as well as ensuring judicial verification for anyone working with minors.

In December, the bishops' conference set up the world's first major national church court, tasked with judging "canonical offenses by clergy and laity," while at a March 28-31 plenary it outlined additional investments in an endowment fund for victim reparations.

In a June 13 statement, Archbishop Pascal Wintzer of Poitiers, whose province includes the La Rochelle-Santes Diocese, said a canonical investigation, parallel to the state one, had been launched against Bishop Colomb, which also would be subject to "judicial confidentiality."

He added that he trusted France's judicial system to "shed light" on the bishop's case, but said Catholics should remember he was also "legitimately entitled" to a "presumption of innocence."

In a June 14 editorial, La Vie said the "unprecedented collaboration" by Catholic newspapers in bringing abuse to light reflected "the seriousness of the alleged facts and their possible systemic nature," adding that many Catholics had "expressed anger" via social media, but also relief "at finally seeing clarification of rumors long circulating in church circles."

Meanwhile, in his OSV News interview, François Devaux said he was also confident the case highlighted a "new determination" by Catholic media to "expose abuses, uphold the full truth and act as guardians of the Christian message."

"Things have clearly evolved and church members are no longer inactive today -- Catholics are expressing anger, taking responsibility and appealing to consciences, while also becoming expert critics and pushing for change," the Parole Libérée co-founder told OSV News.

"There has been a profound spiritual corruption, even as the church seeks to act as a guide for its people. It's these Catholic people who are now reminding the church of the values it should be promoting and highlighting what it still needs to do."

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