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French cardinal on trial over abuse cover-up

January 7, 2019

Philippe Barbarin is the highest-profile Catholic cleric to be embroiled in a sexual abuse cover-up in France. Victims have accused him of failing to report a priest who abused children in the 1980s and 1990s.

French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin during mass in Lyon
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/N. Liponne

The trial of French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin began on Monday in Lyon. The cleric is accused of covering up sexual abuse and failing to protect children from priest Bernard Preynat.

The case has cast a shadow over the French Catholic Church, with Barbarin being the highest-profile cleric in the country facing the justice system.

Several other officials have also been accused in the Barbarin case, including Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the top Vatican official in charge of sex abuse cases. He won't appear in court though, as the Vatican invoked his diplomatic immunity.

Nine people have said they were abused by Reverend Preynat in the 1970s and 1980s while they were in the Boy Scouts program. The victims brought the case to court, hoping it can hold French church hierarchy accountable for its role in covering up sexual assault.

They accuse top clergy of allowing Preynat to be in contact with children until his 2015 retirement.

"The goal is to to stop the same mistakes being repeated," Francois Devaux, one of the nine victims, said shortly before the trial.

Read more:Vatican promises to crack down on sexual abuse

Barbarin says he's innocent

Cardinal Barbarin did not make a church appearance on Sunday, but sent a message to worshipers that was read aloud during mass.

"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 pedophilia, which are as wrong as they are terrible," the message said.

Barbarin has maintained his innocence. His lawyers have argued that his client never obstructed justice, since the statute of limitations on the abuse had expired by the time Barbarin found out about it.

If found guilty of failing to report the priest's actions, Barbarin could face up to three years in prison and a €45,000 ($51,300) fine.

Pope Francis has praised Barbarin as "brave" and said that French justice should take its course. But Francis also spoke against child sexual abuse and in support of victims on Monday, on the eve of a historic global meeting on the issue.

Read more: Opinion: When it comes to abuse by priests, a crime is a crime

The leader of the Catholic Church vowed justice and described pedophilia as one of the "vilest" crimes.

"I cannot refrain from speaking of one of the plagues of our time, which sadly has also involved some members of the clergy," he said in his annual address to ambassadors to the Holy See. "The abuse of minors is one of the vilest and most heinous crimes conceivable. Such abuse inexorably sweeps away the best of what human life holds out for innocent children, and causes irreparable and lifelong damage."

France's bishops have pledged to do more. Last year, they created an ambitious commission aimed at shedding light on sexual abuse of minors in the French church since 1950. The investigation's findings are expected to be released in 2020.

jcg/msh (AP, AFP)

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