The archbishop of Lyon, the most senior French cleric caught up in the global paedophilia scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church, was convicted of failing to report abuse and handed a six-month suspended jail term on Thursday.
A court in Lyon in southeast France ruled that Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who was not present to hear the verdict, was guilty of failing to report the abuse of a minor between 2014 and 2015.
“The responsibility and guilt of the cardinal have been confirmed by this judgement. It’s an extraordinary symbol, a moment of huge emotion,” a lawyer for the victims, Yves Sauvayre, told reporters afterwards.
The suspended nature of the jail term means he will not serve time behind bars and Barbarin’s lawyer announced immediately that he would appeal the judgement.
“The reasoning of the court is not convincing,” Jean-Felix Luciani said. “We will contest this decision by all the means possible.”
Barbarin (68), faced long-standing allegations from victims’ groups that he failed to report a priest under his authority to police after learning of abuse which took place in the 1980s and 1990s.
He was on trial along with five former aides at a time when the Catholic Church had been hit by abuse scandals in countries as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Chile and the United States.
The aides were all found not guilty, either because the alleged crimes were too old or unproven. Barbarin faced a maximum three years in prison and a fine of €45 000.
Two other senior French religious figures have been convicted of failing to report child abuse in the past: the archbishop of Bayeux-Lisieux, Pierre Rican, in 2001, and the former bishop of Orleans, Andre Fort, last year.
The outcome of the trial, which began in January, had been long awaited in France and the abuse scandal in Lyon has become the subject of a film which is currently in cinemas.
“I cannot see what I am guilty of,” Barbarin had told the court on January 7. “I never tried to hide, let alone cover up these horrible facts.”
The case broke three years ago and lawyers for nine adult plaintiffs — former boy scouts allegedly abused by Priest Bernard Preynat — took legal action.
Since the abuse related to acts committed before 1991, prosecutors had declined to press charges because of the statute of limitations.
But during the trial, victims accused Barbarin of being aware of the abuse allegations from at least 2010 and then trying to cover up the scandal, under orders from the Vatican, from 2015.
Francois Devaux, who leads a victims’ group in Lyon, called Thursday’s verdict a “major victory for child protection”. Devaux was one of up to 85 victims of Preynat, who was charged with sexual abuse in 2016 and is expected to be tried this year.
Preynat was first interviewed by church leaders in 1991 and was prevented from leading scout groups, but he was later allowed to teach children again and held positions of authority.
Barbarin, an arch-conservative who took over as archbishop in Lyon in 2002, only suspended him and stopped him from working with children in September 2015.
Pope Francis last month vowed to an “all-out battle” to tackle every single case of sexual abuse by priests, comparing paedophilia to “human sacrifice”.
© Agence France-Presse