French court to rule on cardinal accused of sex abuse cover-up

The court in Lyon tried the 68-year-old archbishop Philippe Barbarin and five former aides at a time when the church has been hit by abuse scandals worldwide. (AFP pic)

VATICAN: A French court on Thursday will deliver its verdict in the case of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, accused of covering up sexual abuse of minors by one of his priests.

The 68-year-old archbishop and five former aides went on trial in Lyon at a time when the Catholic Church has been hit by abuse scandals in countries as far afield as Australia, Chile and the United States.

The outcome of the trial, which began in January, has been long awaited in France where Barbarin is the highest-profile Catholic cleric to be caught up in a paedophile scandal.

The accused faces up to three years in jail and 45,000 euro (US$50,800) fines if found guilty.

“I cannot see what I am guilty of,” Barbarin told the court. “I never tried to hide, let alone cover up these horrible facts.”

The case broke three years ago and lawyers for nine adult plaintiffs – former boy scouts allegedly abused by priest Bernard Preynat – took legal action.

Since the abuse relates to acts committed before 1991, prosecutors had declined to press charges because of the statute of limitations.

The trial went ahead only because the plaintiffs bypassed the prosecutor’s office and insisted, as they are entitled, on putting their case before a court.

Under French law, the court can still convict and even jail the suspect, regardless of the prosecutor’s position.

Barbarin and his co-defendants have denied covering up the scandal, with the archbishop saying he found out the full story about the priest only after it became public.

Preynat, who was charged with sexual abuse in 2016, is expected to be tried later this year.

He was first interviewed by church leaders in 1991, but Barbarin only suspended him and stopped him from working with children in September 2015.

Plaintiffs point to an exchange in 2015 between Barbarin and the Vatican, which advised him to dismiss the offending priest “while avoiding public scandal”.

Jean Boudot, lawyer for the victims, accused Barbarin of being a “liar” when he said he had only learned of the breadth of the damage in 2014.

Barbarin said he confronted Preynat, about the abuse “rumours” in 2010 but let the matter drop after Preynat insisted he had changed.

In 2014, after meeting with one of the priest’s victims, Barbarin contacted the Vatican about the affair, but he only removed the priest from his post a few months later.

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.

Pope Francis last month promised an “all-out battle” to tackle every single case of sexual abuse by priests, comparing paedophilia to “human sacrifice”, but drew an angry response from victims.