In the latest chapters of the ongoing saga of abuse in the Church, a French cardinal has been acquitted of a cover-up charge and members in a “cult”-like order are being investigated for pedophilia in Italy.

Driving the news

An appeals court in Lyon Thursday overturned the March conviction of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of the southeastern French city, for failing to report to civil authorities the crimes of pedophile priest Bernard Preynat.

Barbarin had been found guilty of covering up Preynat’s crimes and handed a six-month suspended jail sentence, as well as a temporary suspension by Pope Francis from his post as archbishop.

The court gave no explanation for its ruling January 30, though the prosecutor’s office had sought the cardinal’s acquittal in the appeal trial last November.

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“This decision is logical”, said one of Barbarin’s lawyers, Felix Luciani, after the appeal ruling was handed down, adding his client had been the victim of “public rumour and calumny”.

In convicting Barbarin, the court of first instance had ruled that the cardinal, “in wanting to avoid scandal caused by the facts of multiple sexual abuses committed by a priest… preferred to take the risk of preventing the discovery of many victims of sexual abuse by the justice system, and to prohibit the expression of their pain”.

But Barbarin and his legal term argued that he was following Vatican instructions on abuse in the Church by keeping Preynat in the active ministry even after hearing first-hand complaints of the priest’s abuse in 2014.

For their part, in a statement the French Bishops welcomed Barbarin’s acquittal today, even as they reiterated their “determination to continue the work necessary to combat” abuse in the Church “so that it does not happen again”.

Barbarin himself, on the other hand, welcomed the judicial decision as an “opportunity to open a new chapter” in the Church of Lyon.

“This is why, once again, I will hand in my resignation as Archbishop of Lyon to Pope Francis. Naturally, if the Holy Father wishes to see me, I will go to Rome”, Barbarin said in a statement.

“Last March, he refused my resignation, accepting that I would withdraw during the duration of the legal proceedings. Now I can peacefully renew my request.

“My thoughts are with the victims. With many other brothers and sisters, I will continue to pray for them and for their families, daily”, the cardinal stressed.

Why it matters

In the other case of abuse in the Church, in Italy, authorities have confirmed nine members of an order in the region of Tuscany are under investigation for the alleged of two minors.

The nine men under suspicion include five priests of the order, three other religious priests and a religious brother.

The men belonged to a small community called the Disciples of the Annunciation, which was shut down by the Vatican last year after two successive canonical investigations found “serious shortcomings” in its religious life and “cult”-like leadership on the part of its superior.

The religious – including group founder Father Giglio Gilioli – are accused of having abused two members of their community – siblings – in group-sex sessions while those victims were still minors, between 2008 and 2016.

For the record

Bishop of Prato Giovanni Nerbini took the unusual step January 29 of confirming the criminal investigation of the members of the ex-Disicples community after a newspaper investigation revealed the existence of a probe and also raids on the houses the community used in the past but which its members have now fled.

Nerbini’s honesty was unusual, because in Italy clergy are not obliged to report suspicions of child sexual abuse to civil authorities, and because Nerbini’s predecessor as bishop had merely forwarded a June 2019 complaint from a survivor on to the Vatican, as per former stipulations in canon law.

According to the Prato diocesan website, it was Bishop Nerbini himself who took the complaint to the police last December, in what was hailed as a change in direction from an Italian bishop and, at last, a “clear, transparent and unequivocal” response to priestly pedophilia.

“Our first duty is to the truth”, Nerbini said, pledging the Church’s ongoing cooperation in the criminal investigation and confirming, too, the existence of a canonical investigation of the alleged abusers.

Update 30/1/20 21:24 CET

The Holy See has just released the following statement through spokesman Matteo Bruni on the overturning of the verdict against Barbarin:

“The Holy See has learnt the news of the judgment of the Court of Appeal of Lyon, in the case of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, and the decision of His Eminence to remit again his mandate in Pope Francis’ hands. Together with the French Episcopal Conference, the Holy See reaffirms its closeness to all the victims of abuses in their suffering and to their families and communities, and is at the side  of the Church of Lyon, harshly tried.

“The Holy Father, who continues to follow closely the unfolding of this painful affair, will communicate his decision in due time.”

(Source: ZENIT; translation Virginia M. Forrester)

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.