The French Church’s pedophilia commissioner has warned of a link between “hierarchical function” and “systemic” abuse in Catholicism.

– “As soon as he assumes an important hierarchical function, an abuser can foster the emergence of a system of abuse”

Jean-Marc Sauvé, the president of the Independent Commission of Inquiry into Sexual Abuse within the Church (CIASE), made the remarks in an interview June 17 with La Croix.

Sauvé – a jurist, civil servant and former vice-president of the French Council of State – was commenting on one particular finding of his Commission to date: that of the fact that “12 to 13 percent” of the complaints of abuse the body has received since opening its call for witnesses in June 2019 have come from people who were adults at the time of the alleged offending.

“Almost a third” of those alleged adult victims of abuse within the Church from 1950 were seminarians and religious in formation, Sauvé revealed.

And even though the commissioner said “I don’t consider the [religious] community to be suspicious at all on principle” in terms of fostering abuse, he did admit that “the question is to know how abuses of a personal nature could become systemic: as soon as he assumes an important hierarchical function, an abuser can foster the emergence of a system of abuse, all the more if he is a founder”.

“In the Church, as in any human society, positions of power and responsibility can be distorted and become abusive”, Sauvé lamented.

“Hence the importance of the choice of superiors, limits on powers, term limits and internal regulatory mechanisms”, he explained.

– “Very disturbing… to what extent spirituality and Scripture could have been misused to satisfy sexual impulses”

Though the Sauvé Commission has heard from over 5,000 potential victims of abuse within the Church in the last year alone, its president said the body’s work “is far from over”.

“We are in the middle of the ford, and the Commission at this stage is bringing more questions than conclusions”, Sauvé affirmed.

However, the commissioner did venture a few preliminary “observations” on the forms of “authority, control, direction of conscience or spiritual guidance” that are prone to developing into abuse.

In that sense, he deplored that “the suffering of an adult victim of sexual abuse is specific and has a particular dimension of abuse of conscience and spiritual abuse”.

Along with seminarians and religious in training, “a clear majority” of alleged adult victims were women, Sauvé said, nothing that in both groups “some [victims] were more vulnerable because there was a relationship of trust with a cleric, a seminary professor, an accompanist”.

“While the abuse of a minor proceeds from the objectification of the child’s body and clearly falls within the framework of an abuse of authority aggravated by the sacred figure of the priest, the abuse of an adult has its own perversity which combines elements of abuse of authority, as well as forms of abuse of conscience”, the commissioner decried.

He stressed that “the abuse of adults, even more than child molestation, fits well with the diagnosis made by Pope Francis in his Letter to the People of God [2018] denouncing the trilogy of ‘abuse of authority and conscience, spiritual abuse, sexual abuse'”.

Sauvé also highlighted that he has found “very disturbing… to what extent spirituality and Scripture could have been misused to develop a strategy of predation and to satisfy sexual impulses”.

He put forward the example of the sexual imagery of the biblical book of the Song of Songs as providing in some cases a pretext for abuse, which he denounced has also been facilitated by theologies of “chosen ones” or a “spiritual elite” in the Church to whom the law does not apply, and by “a gross denaturation of the Marian cult”.

– 3,000 children abused by 1,500 clerics in over seven decades: an average of 40 cases a year

Other worrying findings from the French Church pedophilia commission released by Sauvé June 17 include the fact that at least 3,000 children were abused by over 1,500 clerics and other Church figures in the years since 1950.

That number represents an average of more than 40 cases of abuse in the Church per year over the past seven decades, but Sauvé told journalists in a video press conference that “I am deeply convinced that there are many more victims”.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Commission – made up along with Sauvé of lawyers, medics, historians, sociologists and theologians – has extended its call for witnesses to October 31, and is expected to report next year with recommendations for further abuse prevention and accountability measures.

More news on Novena on the French Church:

To put a stop to clericalism and abuse, female theologian puts hand up to be next Archbishop of Lyon

Pope accepts resignation of Barbarin, French cardinal accused of child abuse cover-ups

Bishops in Spain, Italy, France still not applying “zero tolerance” for priest abusers, enablers: survivors

French Church not cooperating fully with independent abuse inquiry: survivor

French historian: no fix to Church abuse crisis without fix to Church sexism


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