Cardinal Barbarin of Lyon, France – recently acquitted on appeal of the cover-up of clergy sex abuse, and now tipped for a new Vatican post – has blamed his prosecution on the persecution of Christians in modern society.

Driving the news

In an interview with French weekly Le Point February 5, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin spoke publicly for the first time since an appeals court in Lyon overturned January 30 his March 2019 conviction for failing to report to civil authorities the crimes of pedophile priest Bernard Preynat.

Cardinal Barbarin had been found guilty of covering up Preynat’s crimes and slapped with 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.

In convicting Cardinal 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.

Go deeper

In his conversation with Le Point, Barbarin said he felt “consoled” and “vindicated” by the appeals court decision, “but only up to a certain point: the rest is out of the reach of the courts”.

“This case will remain attached to my name and will stick to my skin forever”, the cardinal acknowledged, adding that “I will continue to be the one who did not report the heinous acts” of Preynat.

Barbarin acknowledged that “the victims have helped me to understand the seriousness and the persistence of this great wound that has turned their lives upside-down”.

But the cardinal also played the victim to Le Point, lamenting that his name and honour had been “dragged through the mud” and that he himself had been the target of a “media tsunami”.

Barbarin, in Lyon since 2002, also passed the buck to his three predecessors as archbishop, though he stopped short of blaming them completely for not being the ones to denounce Preynat’s four decades of offending.

“They [Barbarin’s predecessors] acted with the mentality of the time, as we are reacting with that of today”, the cardinal said, taking for granted the old protocols of covering-up sex crimes and protecting the Church’s reputation above all else.

Although that charge – of protecting the Church – Barbarin vehemently rejected, protesting: “I know that even Catholics blame me for that. But I need someone to explain to me how and in what way I protected the institution!

“I love the Church, I try my best to fulfill the mission entrusted to me. But the Church is first and foremost a servant of the children of God, of all men. It is not an institution made for itself, but only for those who have been entrusted to it… I have always been on the side of truth”, Barbarin claimed.

Why it matters

As for why he thinks he was singled out for prosecution, then, in the case of Preynat, Barbarin confessed that he put it down to the suggestion of “all of the bishops” who told him: “You’re paying the price for your opposition to same-sex marriage”, finally legalised in France in 2013.

Not only did Barbarin pay that revenge-for-opposing-gay-marriage card, but he also brought into play the old cliché of the unjust persecutions suffered by the Church since earliest Christianity.

“This scourge [of anti-Christian persecution] must be eradicated, and it is not surprising that the Church is receiving a beating. It has become accustomed to it since Nero and these attacks will be a service for the whole society”, Barbarin claimed.

What’s next

The flippancy of Barbarin’s excuses in the Preynat case takes on a even more serious tone in the light of speculation that, given the majority of the Lyon faithful don’t want him back as archbishop, he could now be destined for a Vatican post.

The French Catholic paper La Croix recalled that Pope Francis himself told that very publication in May 2016 that “I believe that in Lyon Cardinal Barbarin took the necessary measures, that he took things in hand”.

Francis called then in 2016, and later in April 2019, to let the court proceedings take their course, insisting on that latter date that “we must always bear in mind the presumption of innocence. This is important because it goes against a superficial media condemnation”.

“Now that the civil justice system has exonerated Barbarin, the 69-year-old cardinal could once again play a constructive role in the Church”, La Croix speculated.

“For instance, it is possible that he could be offered a senior post in Rome. His acquittal gives more weight to that.

“In his interview with La Croix in 2016, Pope Francis described Barbarin as ‘a courageous, creative missionary’. And in the pope’s eyes, there are ways the French cardinal can still serve the Church, perhaps in the Roman Curia”.

Barbarin has newly submitted to the Pope his resignation as Archbishop of Lyon, and the Vatican has communicated that Francis will make his decision known on the cardinal’s future “in due time”.

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