LYON (AFP) - The highest-profile Catholic cleric to be caught up in a paedophile scandal in France went on trial on Monday (Jan 7) charged with failing to report a priest who abused boy scouts in the 1980s and 90s.
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon in southeastern 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, one of the most prominent Catholic figures in France, arrived for the start of proceedings at a court in Lyon wearing a cap and leather jacket.
“The goal is to to stop the same mistakes being repeated,” Mr Francois Devaux, a former scout who brought the allegations in Lyon to light, said shortly before the trial began.
Barbarin refrained from appearing publicly in church on Sunday (Jan 6), instead sending a message which was read out to worshippers.
“Ask unto God that the work of justice is done, ask also that he heals everything that needs to be healed in the hearts of victims of acts of paedophilia, which are as wrong as they are terrible,” the message said.
He faces up to three years in prison and a fine of €45,000 (S$69,700) if convicted of failing to report the abuse on minors. He denies the allegations.
The case is likely to hinge on whether he should have reported a priest under his responsibility to police once he learned about the allegations against him.
After initially saying he first knew about the allegations in 2014, he admitted in 2016 to having known about them for nearly a decade.
France’s Catholic church has been roiled in recent years by claims against 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 Mr Devaux went public with allegations that a local priest, Bernard Preynat, had abused him as a child 25 years earlier.
Mr Devaux also filed a complaint against Barbarin, who has retained the support of Pope Francis.
After six months of investigation and 10 hours of interviews with the cardinal, investigators dropped the case in 2016, saying the allegations against Barbarin were either too old or impossible to prove.
But nine victims succeeded in reopening the probe which led to him and the others, including the now-archbishop of Auch and the bishop of Nevers in France, having to stand trial.
All of them worked in the Lyon diocese at the time of the abuse.
“We hope this time to have a ruling that will be clear and obvious for everyone,” Mr 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, Preynat 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.
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 No.1 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.
The story of Mr 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.