French clergy abuse report sheds light on confessions


PARIS – The absolute secrecy of confession is at the heart of the Roman Catholic faith. What is said in the confession is between a penitent and God, the priest a mediator. Any priest who breaks this seal can be excommunicated under the laws of the Church which the Vatican places above all others.

But what happens when what is confessed is a violation of state laws?

It is a problem that has thwarted attempts to deal with cases of sexual abuse that rocked the church in many countries, but which has become particularly serious in France, where the state has long deprived the church. Catholic from his preeminence. .

A devastating Church-ordered report released in October by an independent commission on sexual abuse within the French Catholic Church found that the sacrament of confession itself, in rare instances, had been used to cover up cases of abuse.

Some victims wishing to report past abuses or denounce active abusive priests were invited to speak about it during confession, effectively suppressing their revelations and turning the sacrament into a “weapon of silence”, said Laëtitia Atlani-Duault, member of the Commission independent on Sexual Abuse in the Church, which wrote the report.

“The fact that this information was heard during confession would exempt the church from submitting to the laws of the Republic,” she said.

The report recommended that priests who heard of abuse during confession be required to report evidence to state authorities so that the attackers “no longer feel protected by church leaders,” Ms. Atlan said. Duault, anthropologist who teaches at the IRD-University of the University of Paris and Columbia.

However, the day after the publication of the report, Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, Archbishop of Reims and President of the Episcopal Conference of France, reaffirmed the Vatican’s position on the absolute secrecy of confession, declaring the law of the Church ” superior to the laws of the Republic.

The comment drew a sharp rebuke from the French government. Gerald Darmanin, the Minister of the Interior, quickly summoned the Archbishop – an act laden with symbolism that angered some Catholic officials.

After an interview with the minister’s office, the archbishop spoke in a statement on “the reconciliation of the nature of confession and the need to protect children” and apologized for his ” clumsy wording ”.

But he did not back down from the church’s position on the secrecy of confession. Mr Darmanin reiterated the government’s position that priests should report child abuse, although he did not say they were legally required to do so.

Such disagreements over the secrecy of confession have erupted in a number of countries that have experienced abuse in their churches, but the debates remain largely unresolved. Under pressure, the Vatican has lifted or relaxed some of its privacy policies in recent years, but it has remained firm on the confession.

In Australia, a royal commission recommended in 2017 that priests who hear of sexual abuse in the confessional be required to report it, and several states have passed laws to this effect, but church officials have refused to do so. conform. In the United States, only a handful of states have refused religious exemptions from mandatory reporting laws.

But the question has taken on a particular resonance in France, which has experienced a long and controversial separation of Church and State.

“We can say that the church is not ready to revisit this dogma,” Jean Castex, the French Prime Minister, told reporters last month during a visit with Pope Francis to the Vatican, according to French media. . “But we have to find ways to reconcile it with criminal law and victims’ rights. “

Reverend Thomas Poussier, a Catholic priest who wrote about the confession, said he understood why the sacrament was suspected. “It may seem like a great predator soul-laundering machine,” he said.

During confession, priests should urge victims to report evidence to outside authorities so that the act of confession does not become “the end of the road,” he added.

The estimated number of victims of abuse – 200,000 to 300,000 over 70 years – was a projection based on a survey of the general population, a public call to testify, an analysis of archives and other sources. The commission interviewed more than 150 victims and received more than 2,200 written testimonies.

Ms. Atlani-Duault, the commission member, said the group had not performed a quantitative analysis that would show how often penitents were oriented towards confession when discussing sexual abuse.

Cases of abuse reported during confessions seemed rare, said Olivier Savignac, leader of From Talk to Action !, an umbrella association of victims’ groups created after the report to push the church to change. On Friday, the bishops of France acknowledged that the church bore “institutional responsibility” for “systemic” abuse, a confession that many victims hoped to hear.

But Mr Savignac said the Archbishop of Moulins-Beaufort’s comments pointed to a fundamental problem – which the French Catholic Church, like its counterparts in other countries, could not independently change.

“There can be no reforms of the Catholic Church in France, especially on something at the level of the secrecy of confession, without the authorization of Rome”, declared Mr. Savignac. “The bishops hide behind Rome because they know full well that Rome’s conservatism acts as a firewall.”

When asked if the descriptions in the report constituted an abuse of the sacrament, the Vatican press office said the information available on the cases was “too few to draw any conclusions.”

The answer is unsatisfactory even for some of the faithful. André Robert, a practitioner who was recently found at the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in the seventh arrondissement of Paris, said that in a secular state, the laws should apply to everyone.

“I wouldn’t understand if the Catholic religion received a pass,” Robert said.

Reverend Cédric Burgun, vice-president of the faculty of canon law at the Catholic University of Paris, said the controversy stemmed in part from a misunderstanding of the sacrament.

Over the past few decades, he said, “we have turned confession into a kind of psycho-emotional and spiritual assistance,” instead of just confessing and repenting of one’s sins. Confessions that physically separate the priest from the parishioner are rarely used these days, he added, and confession often takes place in a face-to-face office.

If a victim mentions abuse during confession, “the priest must be able to say to the person: ‘What you are telling me is not strictly speaking part of the confession, so it is better that we talk about it again in another. context to see what needs to be done, ”said Father Burgun.

But some critics say the reasoning ignores how difficult and winding the process can be for those trying to speak up.

Véronique Garnier, 60, who was sexually abused by a priest in her parish when she was 13, said the church needed to “put victims at the center” but it “still sees things from the point of view of the clergy “.

She drew a parallel with her experience. After being abused, she said she turned to her high school chaplain, then a sister and finally another priest. They all told him to seek help elsewhere. It took her a year between each time to find the courage to speak out again, she added.

“It’s like someone sees another person drowning and says, ‘Wait, I see you are drowning, but I can’t help you, so we’re going to wait for someone else to come.’ “said Ms. Garnier, who has written a book about her experience and now works in child protection for the Diocese of Orleans.

Bruno Py, a law professor at the University of Lorraine in eastern France, said French priests were subject to the same rules of confidentiality that govern doctor-patient or lawyer-client relationships. Professionals who break these rules face up to a year in prison and thousands of euros in fines.

In recent years, France has provided exceptions to these sanctions, especially in cases of minor abuse, he noted. French law also makes it compulsory for anyone to report abuse against minors or vulnerable persons; those who fail to do so face up to three years in prison and a heavy fine.

But barring rare cases involving imminent danger or life-threatening, Mr Py said, the law exempts confidential professionals from such obligations. The legal precedent is to let them choose: they face no penalty if they report abuse, but they also face no penalty if they keep the information private.

“Speaking is allowed; silence is allowed, ”he said. “The law leaves individuals with their conscience.

Léontine Welsh contributed to the Paris report, and Jason horowitz From Rome.