Investigator: There could be 10,000 abuse victims in French Catholic Church since 1950

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The head of an independent commission said on Tuesday that there could be at least 10,000 victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in France since 1950.

Jean-Marc Sauvé, president of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE), said that the body's previous suggestion in June 2020 of 3,000 victims was an underestimate.

"It's possible that the figure is at least 10,000," he said at a press conference on March 2.

CIASE, set up by the Catholic Church in France in 2018, said its investigation has so far received 6,500 testimonies concerning at least 3,000 individual victims.

Its final report is due to be released in early fall 2021.

The French bishops' conference is funding the commission's investigation, but members are not paid and their work is not directed by the bishops.

In the press conference, Sauvé said that the investigation is intended to answer several questions, including: "What is the order of magnitude? The number of victims and perpetrators? What percentage of priests are perpetrators of attacks? What do the abuses committed in the Church represent for society?"

The commission received testimonies from June 2019 through October 2020, during which time it identified approximately 3,000 victims, but Sauvé said this "certainly does not take account of the totality."

Given the voluntary nature of the commission's request for reports, Sauvé said "the big question which arises for us: what percentage of victims did it touch? Is it 25%? 10%, 5% or less?"

Sauvé said that most of the events reported to CIASE took place in the 1950s and 1960s, and the abuse primarily happened in schools, followed by catechism classes, and youth movements or summer camps.

Thirty percent of the victims who contacted the commission are over 70 years old and 50% are between 50 and 69 years old.

CIASE is looking not only at clerical sexual abuse of minors but also clerical abuse of vulnerable adults. Of the abuse accounts received, however, 87% were committed against minors.

Among young adult victims, 33% were members of religious communities or seminarians at the time of the attack, Sauvé said.

Sauvé added that "we can say with a high degree of certainty that within the Catholic Church, the abuses mainly concerned men and not women, unlike society."

French bishops took part in an extraordinary plenary assembly on Feb. 22-24 reflecting on abuse within the Church. 

A press statement on Feb. 24 said that the meeting, held via video conference, would help the bishops to prepare for their spring plenary assembly, on March 23-26, "whose goal will be to commit the Church in France for several years to a viable mechanism to lead it out of the crisis of sexual assault and abuse of power."

In March 2019, Pope Francis issued a set of canonical norms to strengthen existing laws on sexual abuse for the Vatican City State and Roman Curia.

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Among these norms, the pope expanded the Church's definition of a "vulnerable adult" from someone who "habitually lacks the use of reason," to include anyone "in an infirm state, of physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal freedom, that in fact, even occasionally, limits their capacity to intend or to want or in any way to resist the offense." 

Sauvé declined to provide an update on the last figures that an estimated 1,500 clergy and Church officials are believed to have perpetrated the abuse.

The independent commission was announced by French bishops in November 2018, as they held their plenary assembly in Lourdes.

Pope Francis sent a message to the bishops during their meeting. According to Vatican News, Francis urged the bishops to continue to have "zero tolerance" against clerical sexual abuse while not forgetting "to recognize and support the humble fidelity lived in daily life, with the grace of God, by so many priests, men and women religious, consecrated and lay faithful."

The pope also asked them to listen to victims and their stories.

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