Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Long History

At the beginning of April, the Recognition and Reparation Commission announced a scale ranging from 1 to 7 set for people who have been sexually abused by members of the Catholic Church in France. These amounts will range from 5 to 000 depending on different criteria.

These decisions follow several investigations undertaken after the publication of the report of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE). Beyond the echo received in the press and public opinion, this commission wanted to reconcile listening to the victims, establishing the facts over 70 years, and auditing the responses provided by the institution. The contributions of the Sauvé survey tally with other work already carried out abroad.

The reports of the Grand Jury in Pennsylvania (USA) and in Germany in 2018, the resignation of the 34 bishops chileans in 2019, had already revealed the extent of the crimes committed within the Catholic Church and the considerable number of victims.

A chronology of attitudes

Beyond the appalling numbers of victims, abusers and witnesses, the "massive" aspect and “systemic” sexual violence within the Church. Here stands a attitude timeline : thus in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a matter of preserving the Church by distancing criminals and keeping victims silent, then the question disappeared before, in the 1990s, timidly, attention to victims began to emerge followed by partial recognition from the 2010s.

While one of the main victims' associations, that of the abuses of Father Preynat, founded in Lyon in 2015, is called "The Word Freed", the parallel publication of a collection, entitled “From victims to witnesses”, marks the change of perspective that has begun.

For the first time, we recognize and make public the words of the victims, which contrasts with the long silence and the long blindness to the extent of the abuses. As concern grows over the sexual abuse issue, the institution has long favored an internal resolution of abuses, it has often opposed judicialization and has widely promoted a policy of transferring defaulting clerks. She is also more dedicated to guilty priests than to the victims, while the Church appears to be the second place in France for sexual violence towards the children, after the family.

Another pioneer commission

The call for a commission to confront a profound divorce between the opinion and the image of the Church is nothing new. The choice of the CIASE, a commission wanted by the bishops and directed by a recognized Catholic, is inspired by the success of another identical commission directed by the historian René Rémond.

In 1992, strongly challenged by the media, the Primate of Gaul, Mgr Decourtray, chose an "independent" commission of inquiry into "The Touvier Affair". Pauk Touvier, militia leader in Lyon, suppresses the resistance and pursues the Jews alongside the Germans. He participated in the arrest of the spouses Victor and Hélène Basch, killed shortly afterwards, and personally chose the Jews executed at Rillieux-la-Pape in June 1944.

Sentenced to death at the Liberation, he escaped justice thanks to complicity within the Church. A sum of individual initiatives more than a voluntary policy and an unwelcome mixture of mercy, ignorance of political issues, and sometimes counter-revolutionary ideological proximity, favored his escape. Historian René Rémond added that a too clerical conception had locked clerics in a criminal support that forgot the victims.

However, the confinement of the ecclesiastical authorities in internal logics which, by forgetting the victim, privileges the attention to the guilty clerics, is also at work in the sexual abuses and favors the extent of the crimes. If the Touvier report unveiled the history of the protections granted to the militiaman Touvier, it allowed the Church to put an end to the scandal.

The submission of such a report on the occasion of a scandal that calls into question the institution makes it possible to create a year zero, a before and an after. Did the bishops hope to renew the success of the Touvier report with the CIASE?

A report that produces a shock, and after?

If it is too early to fully identify the impact of the CIASE report on the faithful, beyond the suffering of being associated with a community sullied by these crimes and betrayed by clerics who should guide it towards salvation , three attitudes seem to be emerging: real resistance from some believers, who regret the establishment of the committee, while others wonder about the place and role of the clergy. Then emerge “Christians without Church”. Without breaking with the faith, these believers, by conscientious objection, detach themselves from the rites and the institution. It is not necessarily a question of a contestation of belief but a refusal to enroll in a some form of faith organization.

Will this third way give birth to a “third man”? Under this term, the Jesuit François Roustang evoked in 1966 the emergence of believers who have adopted an institutional “disinterest” in order to better live their faith in a more spiritual way.

If the recognition of victims no longer seems to be called into question, these positions reflect divergent interpretations. If the abusive priests are isolated cases, it suffices to exclude them. The bad apples do not call into question either the holiness of the Church or its organization and doctrine. If the abuses are “systemic”, as demonstrated by the CIASE, questions arise at least about authority and its exercise within the institution. The challenge, beyond the Sauvé report, is to debate a certain idea of ​​the Church.

A clerical conception of the Church

The latter has already undergone a large number of reforms with regard to its clergy. The most important is perhaps that which took place at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in response to the Protestant Reformation, which had among other things denounced the unworthiness of certain clerics. The Papacy then chose to rely on the clergy to accomplish the Catholic reform and the spiritual reconquest of Europe.

This choice rejects the Protestant conception of the priesthood – the universal priesthood given to all by baptism – and exalts the exemplarity of the priest.

If the CIASE report does not question Catholicism as a faith, the failure of the teaching Church undermines a certain conception of the Church. Among the explanations put forward, the Sauvé commission, as in the Rémond report, indeed reveals an “excessive sacralization of the person of the priest” and a “perversion of obedience”. The crisis of sexual abuse marks a possible questioning of an organization based on a specialized caste without it being possible to determine how far the "devaluation of the priesthood" will go.

What reputation for the Church?

The Church is one of the recognized moral sources of society. By virtue of its birthright, which is a right of historical seniority, Catholicism continues to assert its numerical and historical precedence and claims to inspire social life.

The stake of this “recognition” is the recomposition of the relations maintained between the religious expressions in the country and their place in the public institutions (army, school, hospitals, prison). When the chaplain turns out to be an abuser, can we maintain trust in his employer?

Catholics claim to participate in the elaboration of the norms and values ​​of the live together. But this socio-ethical claim at the heart of the battles led by the Catholic Church in recent years – the pro-life movements and the rejection of abortion, the rejection of homosexual marriage, the opposition to medically assisted procreation and to adoption by same-sex couples – is shaken up by the CIASE report. In France, the Manif pour Tous in 2012-2013 embodied this requirement. His defense of the family, illustrated by the slogan "Dad, mom and children, it's natural", breaks on the unveiling of "family" crimes and the silence that surrounded them.

Frederic Gugelot, Professor of Contemporary History, University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne (URCA)

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