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French Church sex abuse investigation head warns number of complaints could reach 10,000

The president of the French Bishops’ Independent Commission on Sex Abuse in the Church (Ciase) has warned the number of complaints the body could receive could reach 10,000.

Driving the news

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Jean-Marc Sauvé said in its first five months of life the commission he leads has received 3,400 telephone, email and written complaints of victims and witnesses of child sex abuse in the Church, along with about two dozen in-person declarations of survivors of two hours each.

That’s up from the 2,000 complaints the commission had received by mid-September, a 70% increase in just two months.

The big picture

Sauvé said he and his fellow commissioners – about twenty jurists, psychiatrists, sociologists and other specialists – had received the testimonies of people abused by brothers, priests or bishops above all in the period between 1950 and 1980.

“The work started has given significant results, but certainly not representative, of all sexual abuse that may have been committed in such a long period, taking into account that 65% of the French population over 18 years of age has maintained regular contacts with the Catholic Church”, Sauvé warned.

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Go deeper

Sauvé, a high-ranking civil servant and former vice-president of the Council of State, France’s highest administrative tribunal, said the main goal of his commission, set up by the French Bishops and Conference of Religious in November 2018, is to “bring to light the sexual abuse of minors” and “understand the way in which these matters have been treated” in the Church.

“Our job is not to reveal the cases that are already in the courts, but to reveal the invisible ones”, Sauvé added.

The civil servant explained that after a year of working on the files he has come to understand the complaints of survivors are only “released after a while”, a reality he said explains the fact that most complainants to date are over 50 years of age.

“From the eighties, the contact between priests and young people was weaker, which explains the shortage of calls from people under 50”, Sauvé added.

Why it matters

The Commission is due to hand down its report on sex abuse in the French Church in the first half of 2021.

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That report will include an evaluation of child protection measures put in place by the French Bishops since 2000, and recommendations for further action on their part in the future.

It’s a massive undertaking, but the commissioners didn’t have to start from scratch, Sauvé recalled.

Instead, they could take their cues from similar inquiries already completed in the USA, Australia, Belgium or the Netherlands, the Ciase president said.

Comparing the French inquiry to the Belgian one in particular, Sauvé warned that if in Belgium investigators uncovered 2,000 historical cases of priestly pedophilia, in France there should be about 10,000, by proportion.

To uncover those testimonies the Commission is still missing, Sauvé said the inquiry members plan to go on a tour from November 29 to places such as Lille, Bordeaux, Marseille, Toulouse, Nantes or Strasbourg, to hear from more survivors in person.

The commissioners will also continue to comb the archives of dioceses and religious orders, as well as old press reports, in order to get to the bottom of the sex scandal in the country’s Church.

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“I think the movement has been expanding from north to south and will continue to do so”, Sauvé concluded, referring to the possible openings of similar inquiries in the Churches in countries such as Spain or Italy.

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