by Karine PERRET
Agence France Presse
LOURDES, France (AFP) — Catholic bishops in France agreed Monday to sell part of the Church’s extensive real estate holdings to compensate thousands of victims of child sex abuse at the hands of clergy.
Church officials have been under intense pressure to recognise and indemnify victims after a landmark French inquiry confirmed extensive sexual abuse of minors by priests dating from the 1950s.
An independent commission will evaluate the claims, “and we are going to provide the means to accomplish this mission… of individual indemnities for the victims”, said Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, head of the Bishops’ Conference of France (CEF).
He did not detail the amounts that could be paid out in response to the devastating inquiry into the “massive phenomenon” of child sexual assault that was often covered by a “veil of secrecy”.
The inquiry, released last month, had urged the Church to pay victims with its own assets, instead of asking parishioners to contribute for crimes committed by the clergy.
The Church had already promised to set up a fund to start making payouts next year, and it will now be bolstered “by selling real estate assets owned by the Bishops’ Conference of France and by dioceses”, Moulins-Beaufort said after days of meetings at the Catholic shrine of Lourdes.
He added that a loan would be sought from banks if needed, and that the Vatican would be asked to send an observer to help examine the Church’s response.
“Our Church cannot be an institution entrenched in its own self-glory,” he said.
– ‘Institutional responsibility’ –
The 2,500-page report detailed abuse of 216,000 minors by clergy over the period, a number that climbs to 330,000 when claims against lay members of the Church are included, such as teachers at Catholic schools.
The commission’s president denounced the “systemic character” of efforts to shield clergy from prosecution and issued 45 recommendations of corrective measures.
After the meetings of the 120 CEF members in Lourdes, bishops backed most of the recommendations, including systematic police background checks for any church associate working with minors.
Nine working groups involving clergy, lay people and even some victims will be set up to implement the measures.
But victims’ associations have said words are far from enough, and are demanding compensation that would cost the Church tens of millions of euros.
– Evaluate all claims –
Hugues de Woillemont, a CEF spokesman, said all compensation claims would be examined by the new commission, including those dating back decades that are usually beyond statutes of limitation for prosecution.
It will be presided by Marie Derain de Vaucresson, a senior civil servant and legal expert specialising in child welfare.
“Financial reparations are part of the response but are not necessarily automatic,” Derain de Vaucresson told Catholic daily La Croix on Monday.
“Some victims have said they just want to know if their assailant is still alive, others want to meet someone involved, the abuser or the bishop at the time,” she said.
Widespread cases of sexual abuse in the Church have become one of the biggest challenges for Pope Francis, who expressed his “shame” after the French inquiry.
Questions of changing doctrine still appeared to be a problem last month, however.
Moulins-Beaufort drew fire after saying priests were not obliged to report sexual abuse if they heard about it during an act of confession.
He was later forced to walk back his comments.
Protecting children from sexual abuse is an “absolute priority” for the Church, the archbishop said after being called to a meeting with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin — at the request of President Emmanuel Macron.
© Agence France-Presse