Cardinal Philippe Barbarin © Jean-Matthieu Gautier (KNA)
An appeals court in Lyon has acquitted Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of charges of failing to report sexual assaults. Thus the case is legally settled. But the image of the church in France has suffered.
A bang for the buck in Lyon: French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was acquitted on Thursday by the Court of Appeal of charges of failing to report sexual assaults. During the trial, in addition to Barbarin's lawyer, the prosecution had also argued for an acquittal of the 69-year-old.
The prosecutor based his decision on doubts. Convicting the cardinal of failing to report a priest and alleged abuser would have been too "broad an interpretation" of the law, in his opinion.
Immense damage to image
The archbishop of Lyon was found guilty at first instance in March 2019 and sentenced to six months' probation. Ten former scouts and alleged abuse victims of the priest Bernard Preynat appeared as joint plaintiffs. Legally, the case is now closed – but the damage to the church's image is immense.
Abuse victims will not accept acquittal. If one were to ask an image expert about the archdiocese of Lyon, the verdict would probably be scathing. Things could hardly have been worse for the church in recent years. Since 2016, national media have repeatedly dealt with the scandal.
It all began in the 80s. At that time, the now 73-year-old priest Bernard Preynat, who was responsible for the scouts in the Lyon district of Sainte-Foy, allegedly abused several underage scouts. It was known that Preynat had pedophilic tendencies. Already at the end of the 60s he was prescribed psychotherapy; at that time still as a seminarian.
In 1991, Preynat was called to speak with then Lyon Cardinal Albert Decourtray (1923-1994). Looking back, he said during his trial, which began in mid-January, there should have been a canonical trial even then. But this did not happen – and Preynat remained in office. Preynat was only released from clerical status by a church court in July 2019. In his own abuse trial pending in Lyon, the prosecutor has demanded eight years in prison.
In 2010, Barbarin received Preynat; he was to take over a parish in the archdiocese. "I told Cardinal Barbarin that there were numerous facts," the priest said during the trial. But that's the sticking point: because Barbarin says he only learned later that Preynat had abused several boys. The priest also says:
"I have spoken of numerous children, but have not gone into detail." Barbarin contradicted this in his trial in January 2019. He had only learned about it in 2014. At the time, the priest involved remained so vague that Barbarin did not understand the implications? Or did he not want to understand them?
According to his own account, a former scout informed Barbarin in July 2014 about his abuse case from the 1980s. In August 2015, the cardinal then sent Preynat into retirement. Judges found Barbarin guilty of being aware of the allegations between July 2014 and August 2015, but failing to report them to the prosecution – as is mandatory in France.
Barbarin was already under investigation in 2016 for not reporting sexual assault by the priest. At the time, the prosecutor's office dropped the case after a few months; there had been no evidence that Barbarin had committed a crime.
Out of the way
Then the second trial in January 2019. Several victims testified. Barbarin also spoke at length on the witness stand. He protested his innocence several times. "Frankly, I don't see what I'm guilty of," he said during the trial. He did not suspect that he would have to turn to the judiciary "because the cases were time-barred and the victim himself confirmed that he could not change anything". In March 2019, judges found Barbarin guilty and sentenced him to six months' probation. The cardinal appealed.
Barbarin has since disappeared from the scene. The now 69-year-old first put Vicar General Yves Baumgarten in charge of the Lyon archdiocese before Pope Francis appointed the former bishop of Evry-Corbeille-Essonnes, Michel Dubost (77), on an interim basis.
Barbarin's resignation from office not accepted by Francis. Since the appeal process has not yet been completed, the presumption of innocence applies, he said. Where Barbarin goes from here is still unclear. A return as head of the archdiocese seems at least problematic to observers, even after some clumsy statements on the cases of.
For the victims, the trials of Preynat and Barbarin mean much more than legal clarity. Many of them still suffer from the consequences today. They wonder how a priest, of all people, could act this way and how the church could cover for him for years. And they demand an acknowledgement of the suffering they often live through to this day. Cardinal's acquittal will fill her with rage all over again.
Pope Francis, meanwhile, sees his church reform efforts repeatedly undermined by past abuse scandals. This Thursday – whether in response to the Barbarin ruling? – he again demanded, before staff of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a "strict and transparent" internal church prosecution of abuse and other serious crimes. The "violated human dignity, especially of children," must be protected, he said.