Report highlights sexual abuse of children in France by the Catholic Church

October 8, 2021

Clergy and laypersons within the Catholic Church in France sexually abused hundreds of thousands of minors over the past seven decades, according to a report published on Tuesday by an independent commission. The commission concluded the problem in the French church was far more pervasive and systematic than previously known. According to their findings, “The Catholic Church is the place where the prevalence of sexual violence is at its highest, other than in family and friend circles.”

How many victims were uncovered by the report?

The commission that produced the report identified around 2,700 victims through a call for testimony, and thousands more were found in the Church archives.

But the report estimates a total of 330,000 victims. Out of that number, an estimated 216,000 people (65%) were abused by priests and other clerics. The remaining 35% of victims — an estimated 114,000 — were abused by other church figures, such as scout leaders or camp counselors.

The estimates are based on a broader research by France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research into sexual abuse of children in the country.

What is the period the abuses occurred?

The report covered a span of 70 years, from 1950 to around 2018. The height of the abuse was 1950–1970; 1970-1990 was a period in which the abuse appeared to decline, and the early 1990s marked an apparent resurgence.

Who were the perpetrators of the abuse?

According to the commission, there have been around 2,900–3,200 suspected pedophiles in the French church over the last 70 years. This group included priests, nuns, monks, deacons, Boy Scout leaders, and parochial school staff. 

Cases of abuse occurred primarily in areas of low religious practice, where there was less oversight of the clergy.

Who were the victims of the abuse?

Most of the victims were boys between the ages of 10 and 13. The study’s authors estimate 80% of the church’s victims were boys, while the broader study of sexual abuse found that 75% of the overall victims were girls.

Based on previous studies of French society, about 14.5 % of women and 6.4% of men suffered from sexual violence in their childhood. Acts of sexual violence committed by clerics, monks, or nuns represent just under 4% of this total. Those committed by persons connected to the Catholic Church (including laypersons) represents 6% of the total. 

Who produced the report?

The report was produced by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE), a 21-member commission established by Catholic bishops in France at the end of 2018. The commission worked independently from the church in conducting their investigation and creating the report. No clergy from the Catholic Church served on the commission. 

Data collection was organized by three research teams, and hearings and interviews were conducted by the members of the CIASE.

What was recommended that the Catholic Church do in response?

Over the greater part of the period studied by the CIASE, its observations show that the Catholic Church’s attitude could be summarized as “one of concealment, relativization or even denial, with only a very recent recognition, dating from 2015, and even then, unequally accepted by dioceses and religious institutions.”

The CIASE presented 45 recommendations in their report, which cover a broad spectrum ranging from listening to victims, reforming canon law, recognizing crimes committed, and providing reparations for the harms inflicted. It also makes suggestions regarding church governance, the training of clergy, the prevention of sex abuse, and dealing with the perpetrators. 

The report also encouraged French bishops to consider the ordination of married men and to give “a far greater presence of laypersons in general, and women in particular” in the church’s deciding bodies.

Earlier this year Pope Francis issued the most extensive revision to Catholic Church law in four decades, insisting that bishops take action against clerics who abuse minors and vulnerable adults.