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Catholic clergy in France likely abused more than 200,000 minors, independent commission estimates

Commission president Jean-Marc Sauve attends the publishing of a report by an independent commission on sexual abuse by church officials (Ciase) on October 5, 2021, in Paris. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

PARIS — The head of a commission examining sexual abuse of minors by French Catholic priests and clerics put the possible number of victims at more than 200,000 since 1950 on Tuesday, concluding that the abuse had been systemic. The report’s findings could trigger a public reckoning in a country where church officials long-stalled efforts to investigate complicity.

The Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, set up over two years ago with the approval of French church officials, examined abuse allegations over the past seven decades.

Catholic clergy in France abused more than 10,000 child victims, independent commission estimates

Commission leader Jean-Marc Sauvé said his team had identified only a small percentage of victims, but academic research and other sources meant that the real number is likely around 216,000, or even around 330,000 if one includes sexual abuse by lay members. The vast majority of the victims were male, according to the report. The authors cautioned that the margin of error could be several tens of thousands. Several cases have been forwarded to law enforcement officials, or — in cases where the window of prosecution had passed — to church officials. Overall, the report estimates the number of perpetrators to be at least around 3,000, with most of them being priests or clerics. Earlier this year, Sauvé put the possible number of child victims at more than 10,000 but cautioned at the time that the estimate could rise. “The big question for us is: How many victims came forward? Is it 25 percent? Ten percent, 5 percent or less?” Sauvé told journalists at the time. “Their stories are a true memorial of pain. Entire lives have been devastated,” he said. A French Catholic Church representative asked for forgiveness in response to the publication of the findings on Tuesday. About 60 percent of French adults identify as Catholic, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted from 2015 to 2017. But the exact number of practicing Catholics remains difficult to ascertain because of France’s strict limits on collecting ethnic or religious data. The same limitations make it hard to track the impact of abuse scandals on church attendance in France. Some other European countries have experienced dramatic drops in membership. The report released Tuesday identified several possible measures to address the church’s institutional failures, including compensation for the victims and systematic training of priests and clerics. Victims in France have complained about a lack of action to prosecute abuse by priests — a problem they say has only begun to improve in recent years. Sauvé said Tuesday that 2015 and 2016 marked a change in attitudes in the French Catholic Church. In response to the scandals, the Catholic Church pledged more transparency. The Vatican also last year published new guidelines for bishops, directing them not to dismiss accusations even if they appear vague or initially dubious. Victims’ organizations have argued that those changes are not far-ranging enough.