A French bishop is still defending the sacramental seal despite a pedophile ex-priest admitting he confessed his abuse and begged for help.

Driving the news

Last week, a Lyon court heard ex-priest Bernard Preynat, 74, admit his abuse of no fewer than 75 children over the course of four decades.

“I always confessed my faults”, Preynat testified, as he recognised his molesting, on occasion, as many as “four or five [boys] a week” during the scout camps he ran alone.

“Every time the confessor gave me absolution and urged me not to start again. A month later, I’d start again”.

The big picture

Preynat also declared that authorities in the Church had been aware of his obsession for young boys for sixty years, ever since a supervisor in his seminary noticed his attraction to children and told him he was “abnormal and sick”.

Though the Church sent him to psychotherapy in 1967-68 as a condition for him to continue his path toward the priesthood, Preynat said that course of treatment turned out to be a failure.

“I thought I was cured after my therapy”, the pedophile said.

“I was disappointed because I started again with the kids. After that, no other member of the Church encouraged me to do another one”.

Subsequent to the psychotherapy, a succession of cardinals in charge of the Lyon archdiocese from 1978 to 2019 – when Preynat was finally defrocked – turned a blind eye to the pedophile’s offending, even despite a steady stream of complaints from parents.

“I was warned by the hierarchy of the impact these acts could have in the media”…

“He [Cardinal Decourtray] made a movement with his arm so that I wouldn’t tell him the facts”…

“I was received for 10 minutes… He [Cardinal Bille] sent me to see a lawyer”…

Preynat’s account of the disinterest of the Lyon archdiocesan leaders painted a damning account of a Church more concerned with protecting its internal regulations and good reputation than with preventing abuse and caring for survivors.

“Had the Church sidelined me earlier, I would have stopped earlier”, Preynat testified.

Go deeper

Despite Preynat’s admission that he confessed his abuse in the confessional – and would have stopped abusing had he been stopped by the Church – at least one French bishop is continuing to defend the sacramental seal.

That’s the strict confidentiality rule around the sacrament of reconciliation that prevents confessors from disclosing information revealed to any authority, ecclesiastical or secular.

“In my experience, and in that of my confreres, a pedophile never makes a full confession of his crimes during confession”, Lyon auxiliary bishop Emmanuel Gobilliard wrote in La Croix.

“This is still unclear and I think, after consulting psychiatrists, that lifting the secrecy of the confession would be counterproductive”, continued Gobilliard, 51 and Lyon auxiliary since 2016.

Gobilliard was prepared to admit that “when the confessor hears the confession of those who abuse, he should refuse absolution and make it conditional on contrition. True contrition means giving an account of one’s actions and turning oneself in to justice”.

The bishop said he was committed to putting “proper checks and balances in place to prevent such incidents from occurring again in [the] future” – and to “be[ing] on the side of those in need of support”, the survivors.

But those sentiments rang hollow as he resorted to word games as to whether Preynat had confessed “sin[s] of the flesh”, “impure acts” and/or “masturbation”.

Why it matters

Also writing in La Croix, physician, theologian and professor of ethics at the University of Strasbourg Marie-Jo Thiel said that the fact that Preynat “repeatedly spoke about his actions and the silence on the part of the Church hierarchy” was “not acceptable”.

“It also shows that dioceses such as Paris, Strasbourg and others understood this by signing agreements with the judiciary that the Church is not in a position to carry out its own investigations to shed light on the facts”, Thiel observed.

The theologian also said that Pope Francis’ requirement via the May 2019 motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi that priests report suspected abuse to civil authorities “remains only on paper because many priests have been trained to defend the Church at all costs”.

Though she stopped short of calling for the lifting of confessional secrecy, Thiel insisted that the system that allowed Preynat to confess his crimes “several times” without repercussion or punishment “needs to change so that a priest can withhold sacramental absolution if the penitent has [not] turned himself in”.

For the record

The question of obliging priests to report information revealed in confession under pain of a fine or jail time is a debate that’s going on right now in several countries, from Chile to Australia.

But along with French Church authorities, the Vatican is continuing to argue that “the inviolable secrecy of Confession derives directly from revealed divine law and is rooted in the very nature of the sacrament, to the point of admitting no exception in the ecclesial or, even less so, in the civil sphere”, as it put it in a July instruction.

Would a more flexible approach have limited the damage caused by Preynat’s offending? Would exceptions to the confessional secrecy rule prevent clergy sex abuse in the future?

It’s a question with a far from simple answer, and a debate that’s sure to continue into the future.

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