Hundreds of thousands of children were abused in the Catholic Church in France over the past 70 years, an independent commission concluded on Tuesday.

The Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) published its final report on Oct. 5 at a live-streamed presentation in Paris.

The almost 2,500-page report said that an estimated 216,000 children were abused by priests, deacons, monks, or nuns from 1950 to 2020.

It added that when abuse by other Church workers was also taken into account, “the estimated number of child victims rises to 330,000 for the whole of the period.”

Presenting the report, Jean-Marc Sauvé, president of CIASE, said: “While, in absolute and relative terms, these acts of violence were in decline up until the early 1990s, they have since stopped decreasing.”

“The Catholic Church is the place where the prevalence of sexual violence is at its highest, other than in family and friend circles.”

“Faced with this scourge, for a very long time the Catholic Church’s immediate reaction was to protect itself as an institution and it has shown complete, even cruel, indifference to those having suffered abuse.”

Screenshot from CIASE Facebook page.
Screenshot from CIASE Facebook page.

Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See press office, said on Oct. 5 that Pope Francis was informed about the final report by the French bishops during their recent ad limina visits to Rome.

More in Europe

“His thoughts go first of all to the victims, with great sorrow, for their wounds, and gratitude, for their courage in speaking out, and to the Church of France, so that, in the awareness of this terrible reality, united to the suffering of the Lord for his most vulnerable children, she may undertake a path of redemption,” Bruni said.

“With his prayer, the pope entrusts to the Lord the People of God in France, particularly the victims, that He may give them comfort and consolation, and with justice there may come the miracle of healing.”

The independent commission, established by the French bishops in November 2018, spent 30 months investigating abuse within the Catholic Church led by Sauvé, a senior civil servant.

The final report said that “most of the victims were pre-adolescent boys from all social backgrounds.”

It estimated that there were “between 2,900 and 3,200” abusers out of 115,000 clergy and monks, which it noted “would imply a very high number of victims per aggressor.”

The study suggested that “more than a third of sexual assaults within the Catholic Church were committed, not by clergy or monks, but by lay people.”

“Due to a lack of scientific certitude, the commission renounced trying to estimate the number of adult victims of sexual assault in the Church,” the report said.

(Story continues below)

An official summary of the final report argued that the Church’s attitude towards abuse did not begin to change until the 1990s.

“It was only from 2010 that the Church began to recognize victims when it started reporting cases to the judicial system, imposing canonical sanctions and accepted that dealing with aggressors should no longer be an internal affair,” it said.

Sauvé formally presented the report to Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the French bishops’ conference (CEF), and Sister Véronique Margron, president of the Conference of Religious of France (CORREF), at the event in Paris.

Speaking on behalf of his fellow bishops, Moulins-Beaufort said: “To those who have been victims of such acts by priests, religious or others in the Church, I express my shame, my horror, my determination to act with them so that the refusal to see, the refusal to hear, the desire to hide or mask the facts, the reluctance to denounce them publicly, disappear from the attitudes of the ecclesial authorities, of priests and pastoral workers, of all the faithful.”

François Devaux, president of La Parole Libérée. Screenshot from CIASE Facebook page.
François Devaux, president of La Parole Libérée. Screenshot from CIASE Facebook page.

Other speakers included François Devaux, president of La Parole Libérée, an abuse survivors’ group.

Addressing perpetrators of clerical abuse and bishops involved in cover-ups, he said: “You are a disgrace to our humanity, you have trampled by your behavior the obligation of divine natural law, of protection of life and dignity of the person, while it is the very essence of your institution.”

The CIASE report, entitled “Sexual Violence in the Catholic Church: France 1950-2020,” made 45 recommendations, including systemic criminal record checks for Church employees working with children, creating an effective national support system for victims, offering liturgical events highlighting the impact of abuse, and introducing measures such as keeping “a physical space between the priest and the penitent during confession.”

The report also called for changes to Church law. While acknowledging recent revisions to the section of the Code of Canon Law concerning penal sanctions, CIASE called for “a wide-ranging overhaul of canon law in criminal matters, and in dealing with and sanctioning offenses.”

“This should begin with a clear definition of the offenses in the Code of Canon Law and their implementing legislation, specifying applicable reference standards by establishing a scale of the gravity of offenses and by distributing a collection of case law in the matter,” it said.

“Secondly, canonical criminal procedure needs to be reworked and aligned with basic fair trial rules, thereby giving victims a place in canonical procedure -- which is not the case today.”

Sauvé commented: “Faced with so many historical or recent traumas, the commission believes that there can be no question of ‘turning the page.’”

“The future cannot be built on denial or on burying the harsh reality; recognition and responsibility are required in order to advance. It is vital to really deliver justice to the men and women who have suffered, in body and soul, from sexual violence in the Catholic Church.”

He added: “Consequently, everything must be done to repair, in so far as is possible, the harm which has been done to them and to help them rebuild their lives. And to eradicate the breeding ground of abuse and the impunity of the perpetrators of these crimes.”

“Such a step forward cannot bypass the need for a humble acknowledgment of responsibility from the Church authorities for the mistakes and crimes committed under its auspices. This will involve taking a path of contrition -- on a level with the scale of suffering -- which cannot be conceived and covered in a matter of days or weeks.”

This report was updated at 06:03 a.m. MDT to include comments by Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See press office.