French cardinal to go on trial over child abuse cover-up

French Archbishop Philippe Barbarin before a ceremony to consecrate the new parish of Saint-Philippe de Venissieux, near Lyon, France. (Reuters/Emmanuel Foudrot)

French Archbishop Philippe Barbarin before a ceremony to consecrate the new parish of Saint-Philippe de Venissieux, near Lyon, France. (Reuters/Emmanuel Foudrot)

The highest-profile Catholic cleric to be caught up in a paedophile scandal in France is to go on trial on Monday charged with failing to report a priest who abused boy scouts in the 1980s and 90s.

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, is to stand trial along with five others from his diocese over allegations that they helped cover up abuse in one of the parishes in the area.

The 68-year-old, an arch-conservative, is one of the most prominent Catholic figures in France who faces up to three years in prison and a fine of $54 000 if convicted of failing to report the abuse.

He denies the allegations.

France’s Catholic church has been roiled in recent years by allegations against predator priests which have come to light in the wake of a global move by victims to come forward with evidence.

Clerics have been denounced in countries as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Chile, Ireland, and the United States, leading Pope Francis to promise to rid the church of the scourge that has done enormous damage to its standing.

‘Abused as a child’ 

The scandal in Lyon first came to public attention in 2015 when a former scout went public with allegations that a local priest, Bernard Preynat, had abused him as a child 25 years ago.

The scout, Francois Devaux, who has since formed a victims’ group, also filed a complaint against Barbarin, the priest’s superior, alleging that he had known about the abuse but had covered it up.

After six months of investigation and 10 hours of interviews with Barbarin, investigators dropped the case in 2016 after concluding that the allegations against him were either too old or impossible to prove.

But a group of victims succeeded in having the probe reopened which led to Barbarin and the others, including the archbishop of Auch and the bishop of Nevers in France, being ordered to stand trial.

“We hope this time to have a ruling that will be clear and obvious for everyone,” Devaux said before the start of the trial.

His victims’ group, La Parole Liberee (Freed Speech), began with a handful of people, but soon received calls and testimony from a total of 85 people claiming to have been victims of Preynat in Lyon.

The priest was prevented from leading scout groups after he was first denounced in 1991, but was later allowed to teach to children and held positions of authority in parishes until the scandal surfaced in 2015.

A lawyer for Barbarin, Jean-Felix Luciani, said the cardinal was counting on the trial to “re-establish some facts because you don’t repair one injustice by creating another one.”

Pope’s role 

The story of Devaux, the victim who brought the scandal to light, is to be told in a film this year called Grâce à Dieu which has been made by French director Francois Ozon.

The priest at the centre of the scandal, Preynat, has acknowledged abusing boys during interviews with investigators.

He is set to go on trial this year charged with statutory rape.

Two other French religious figures have been convicted of failing to report child abuse in the past: the archbishop of Bayeux-Lisieux, Pierre Rican, in 2001, as well as the former bishop of Orleans, Andre Fort, last year.

The head of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Spanish Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, has also been accused of complicity in the alleged cover-up in Lyon.

In correspondence with Barbarin about the priest, the Vatican’s number three had advised the cardinal to take “necessary disciplinary measures while avoiding public scandal” — seen as a warning to keep the abuse quiet.

The Vatican has cited his immunity from prosecution and he will not go on trial.

Barbarin has retained the support of Pope Francis who met with him at the Vatican in October 2017 shortly after he was ordered to stand trial.

“I have only one judge who is the Lord,” the cardinal said recently on a trip to the holy town of Lourdes in southern France.

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