Lyon cardinal Philippe Barbarin

As French cardinal appeals abuse cover-up conviction, his diocese wants to “turn the page”

As French cardinal Philippe Barbarin appeals an abuse cover-up conviction, the Lyon diocese he led from 2002 until he stepped aside in March just wants to “turn the page”.

Driving the news

Barbarin appeared Thursday in court on the first day of a hearing he hopes will quash the six-month suspended sentence he received in March for the “non-denunciation of sexual violence against minors”.

A court found earlier this year that the cardinal had failed to act on a 2014 conversation with Alexandre Hezez, who told Barbarin at that time that he was abused in the 1980s by pedophile priest Bernard Preynat.

But 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”, the tribunal concluded in March.

Instead of removing Preynat from the ministry, Barbarin moved him to another parish, and the pedophile continued to work as a priest until his retirement in 2015.

Preynat was finally defrocked only in July this year.

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The former priest will go to trial in January 2020, accused of the abuse of as many as 85 boys from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Go deeper

Barbarin told the appeals court Thursday that he was seeking to overturn his conviction because “I cannot see clearly what I am guilty of”.

His lawyer, Jean-Felix Luciani, added that Barbarin’s sentence was without legal merit and “we hope that at the next step, justice will be done”.

But as the appeal continues, the faithful of the diocese of Lyon are growing frustrated with the Barbarin-Preynat scandal, which first came to light in January 2016.

Why it matters

Though Barbarin offered his resignation to the Pope after being convicted in March, Francis refused to accept it, instead obliging the cardinal to withdraw from public life “for a while”.

Although the Pope named Bishop Michel Dubost as Apostolic Administrator of Lyon in June, life in the diocese hasn’t really moved on, and many are blaming that impasse on the black hole around Barbarin.

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“Not a week goes by without a new element or a new article”, Father Franck Gacogne, priest of Saint-Gabriel de Vaise, told La Croix, referring to new media allegations that Barbarin harassed a seminarian.

“We fell into a hole whose bottom we can’t see. This has seriously undermined ordinary pastoral care”, Gacogne added.

What’s next

Lyon Church insiders insisted to La Croix that Barbarin “no longer has any influence on the life of the archdiocese”.

The truth, though, is that the cardinal is still mentioned in Lyon parish prayers every Sunday, and even appeared on French TV in September concelebrating the funeral of Cardinal Roger Etchegaray.

“Certainly, [Barbarin] no longer makes decisions, but he is physically present in Lyon. For the people of the archdiocese, it’s a heavy burden”, a member of the Catholic Conference of the Baptised of Lyon (CCB-Lyon) told La Croix.

That “heavy burden” is why the CCB-Lyon has written to the Pope’s Nuncio in France to insist that a “solution” to the Barbarin “crisis” can only come about with a “profound change in governance”.

The CCB-Lyon is asking to “turn the Barbarin page, but turn it right”, and that means taking a “true inventory” of how the situation got to this point.

Apostolic Administrator Dubost, though well-liked, is only a temporary solution to the troubles of the Lyon Church, and the people there know it.

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“Sure, we’re waiting to have a bishop”, Luc Champagne, of the Lyon diocesan Family and Society Department, acknowledged to La Croix.

“And whatever happens at the appeal trial, it will not be Philippe Barbarin. The future will be written with another”.

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