Lyon, France, Jan 7 – The highest-profile Catholic cleric to be caught up in a paedophile scandal in France goes 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, in central eastern France, is accused along with five others from his diocese of helping cover up abuse in one of the parishes in the area.
The 68-year-old bishop, an arch-conservative, is one of the most prominent Catholic figures in France. He could face up to three years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros ($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.
The scandal in Lyon first came to public attention in 2015 when a former boy scout went public with allegations that a local priest, Bernard Preynat, had abused him as a child 25 years earlier.
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 and covered it up.
After six months of investigation and 10 hours of interviews with Barbarin, investigators dropped the case in 2016, saying the allegations against him were either too old or impossible to prove.
But a group of victims succeeded in reopening the case which led to Barbarin and the others, including the archbishop of Auch and the bishop of Nevers in France, having 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.
The 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.
After he was first denounced in 1991, the priest was prevented from leading scout groups, but he was later allowed to teach children and held positions of authority in parishes until the scandal became public in 2015.
Preynat has acknowledged abusing boys and is set to be tried later this year.
The story of Devaux, the victim who brought the scandal to light, is to be told in a film this year called “Grace a Dieu” (“Thanks to God”) which has been made by French director Francois Ozon.
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, and 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 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.