French Catholic academy critiques landmark abuse report

Jean-Marc Sauvé speaks at the launch of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church report in Paris, France, Oct. 5, 2021 Jean-Marc Sauvé speaks at the launch of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church report in Paris, France, Oct. 5, 2021. | Screenshot from CIASE Facebook page.

Members of a French Catholic academy have criticized the methodology of a landmark abuse report, prompting resignations from the group.

Eight representatives of the prestigious Académie catholique de France, which has around 250 members, questioned the conclusions of the final report published by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) on Oct. 5.

The academy members wrote a 15-page document that acknowledged the need for an independent study of clerical abuse. But they argued that CIASE departed “in a troubling way” from its mandate and cast doubt on its headline figures.

The almost 2,500-page CIASE report said that the number of children who suffered abuse by priests, deacons, monks, or nuns from 1950 to 2020 was estimated to be around 216,000.

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

The authors of the critique wrote that “one is entitled to question the methodology of the quantitative survey that led to the figure of 330,000 victims, the only figure used by the media.”

The CIASE report suggested 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 eight academy members argued that the report lacked “scientific rigor.”

“The disproportionate assessment of this scourge feeds the narrative of a ‘systemic’ character and lays the groundwork for proposals to bring down the Church-institution,” they said.

The critique’s signatories included academy president Hugues Portelli, philosopher Pierre Manent, and priests Father Jean-Robert Armogathe and Father Philippe Capelle-Dumont.

The critique prompted a backlash, with several members of the academy, founded in 2008, resigning.

Jean-Marc Sauvé. Screenshot from CIASE Facebook page.
Jean-Marc Sauvé. Screenshot from CIASE Facebook page.

The French Catholic daily La Croix reported that among those tendering their resignations were Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the French bishops’ conference, and Sister Véronique Margron, president of the Conference of Religious of France, both of whom attended the CIASE report’s launch.

Jean-Marc Sauvé, president of CIASE, responded to the critique by defending his team’s work.

“Criticism of our report is of course legitimate. I wrote about it in the foreword. But in this case, I feel sadness, and even grief, because I myself am a member of this academy,” the senior civil servant told La Croix.

“The rules of due process and simple confraternity could have justified prior exchanges, if not an adversarial debate. Nothing that happened was elegant or fair, even if I have great respect for some of the signatories.”

Moulins-Beaufort wrote an article on Nov. 29 insisting that the French bishops would not play down the CIASE report.

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“It is important to understand that it is not so much in the face of the damning figures established by CIASE and debated by some that the bishops have decided to assume the institutional responsibility of the Church and to speak of a systemic dimension,” he wrote.

He continued: “These figures were an indication for us. It is by listening to the victims, those whose testimonies CIASE has gathered, those whom we have been meeting for years, that we have made progress. It is by placing ourselves before the Lord.”

“Priests have committed acts of violence and sexual aggression against minors, priests have been guilty of acts of spiritual control, in too great a number for us to consider this as a marginal phenomenon.”

Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort. Credit: Diocèse de Reims.
Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort. Credit: Diocèse de Reims.

The CIASE report made 45 recommendations, including a request for the Church to reconsider the seal of confession in relation to abuse as well as changes to Church law.

The critique’s authors noted that the report recognized that there was no causal link between celibacy and sexual abuse.

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But they said that “recommendation 4 deals with priestly celibacy and invites [the Church] ‘to identify the ethical requirements of consecrated celibacy, in particular with regard to the representation of the priest and the risk incurred of bestowing on him the status of hero, or of placing him in a position of dominance.’”

They argued that “this recommendation falls outside the scope of the commission’s competence.”

Pope Francis prays with French bishops before his general audience, Oct. 6, 2021, in the wake of a devastating abuse report. Vatican Media.
Pope Francis prays with French bishops before his general audience, Oct. 6, 2021, in the wake of a devastating abuse report. Vatican Media.

In conclusion, the academy members underlined that an independent study of clerical abuse was necessary.

But they wrote: “The recommendations of a commission without ecclesial or civil authority can only be indicative to guide the action of the Church and its faithful.”

“Some of them could prove ruinous for the Church. They carry the seeds of a multiplication of procedures initiated by false victims, to the detriment of those who have really been victims of predators.”

The critique has reportedly been sent to the Vatican. According to French media, Pope Francis was due to meet members of CIASE on Dec. 9. But I.Media, a French news agency in Rome, said on Nov. 25 that the meeting had been postponed.

The pope responded to the CIASE report the day after its publication, describing it as “a moment of shame.”

Speaking at his weekly general audience on Oct. 6, he said: “To the victims, I wish to express my sadness and my pain for the traumas they have endured and my shame, our shame, my shame that for so long the Church has been incapable of putting this at the center of its concerns, assuring them of my prayers.”