7 Things Catholics Need to Know About the French Report on Sexual Abuse

The purpose of the 2,500-page CIASE report was not only to shed light on sexual abuse within the Church in France, but also to make recommendations to help the Church better address sexual abuse in the future.

A picture taken Oct. 4 in Paris shows a view of a press conference room on the eve of the release of the CIASE report into sexual abuse by Church officials.
A picture taken Oct. 4 in Paris shows a view of a press conference room on the eve of the release of the CIASE report into sexual abuse by Church officials. (photo: Thomas Coex / AFP via Getty Images)

The Oct. 5 release of the French report on “Sexual Violence in the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2020,” carried out by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (CIASE), has caused an earthquake of reaction.

Catholics know that such investigations are necessary to put an end to a scourge that has destroyed the lives of thousands of people and continues to disfigure the Church, but it’s also extremely important that the findings of the French report are communicated accurately. 

The purpose of the 2,500-page report, which is the fruit of 32 months of work, was not only to shed light on sexual abuse within the Church, but also to determine how these cases have been dealt with and to make recommendations to help the Church better address sexual abuse in the future.

Here are a few important elements to be taken into account in order to have a more complete vision of the general context analyzed in the CIASE report, the staggering figures of which have left Catholics worldwide in a state of shock.

1. The independent commission was established in 2018 at the initiative of the Catholic Church in France, which also entirely funded it. This decision to create the commission was the result of the work of the plenary assembly against abuse held in Lourdes the same year, in which some victims participated for the first time. The physical encounter between the French bishops and these victims was considered a turning point in the Church’s handling of sexual abuse cases. The assembly resulted from the dramatic revelations in 2105 about Father Bernard Preynat, who was accused of having sexually abused dozens of minors between 1971 and 1991, which triggered an awareness within the French episcopate of the need to lift the veil on these crimes and take appropriate measures to better detect possible predators in the Church’s ranks. (The allegations against Preynat resulted in his laicization following his conviction by an ecclesial court in 2019. Preynard was subsequently convicted by a civil court in 2020, and his case also led to the resignation of Cardinal Philiipe Barbarin as archbishop of Lyon.)

2. The report states that 216,000 minors were victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests, monks or deacons between 1950 and 2020. These figures are based on a survey conducted by the French polling firm IFOP, based on a representative sample of 28,000 people. The commission interviewed 243 people and received 2,819 letters. The CIASE report was also compiled on the basis of information in the Church’s archives, to which the commission had full access. 

3. Fifty-six percent of the incidents cited happened between 1950 and 1969. The facts of these cases are almost always not publicly available, due to the statute of limitations, and most of the perpetrators are already dead. While presenting the report to the press, the commission’s president, Jean-Marc Sauvé, stated that the occurrence of sexual abuse declined in the 1970s and 1980s, in absolute and relative terms, until plateauing in the early 1990s and falling even further in more recent years. Sauvé, who is the president of the French Institute of Administrative Sciences, also communicated that while the Church has failed to build an appropriate relationship with the victims, it has carried out real prevention work at all levels of the institution from the 2000s onward.

4. The commission found that, over a period of 70 years, sexual violence committed by Catholic clerics represented 4% of the total of such violence in French society. It involved between 2,900 and 3,900 clergymen, which represents a percentage of between 2.5 and 2.8% of all clergy. In this regard, the daily newspaper Le Figaro recalled that, according to recent figures published by the Bishops’ Conference of France, from 2018 to 2020, there was an average of 35 cases of minors abused by priests per year, out of more than 13,000 priests in office. These figures bring the current percentage to 0.26%, which is far lower than the average provided by the report for the period 1950-2020.

5. Eighty percent of the victims are boys, mostly between 10 and 13 years old, and this average age tends to be increasingly higher over the report’s time frame, involving more and more teenagers. In the rest of society, girls are the most frequent victims of sexual abuse (up to 75% of cases, 80% in family circles). Sauvé also clarified that the type of violence committed by clerics is in general “slightly less serious” than that committed by other aggressors. 

6. More than one-third of the perpetrators are lay people operating within the Catholic Church. The total number of abuse cases involving minors in the Catholic Church in France goes up to 330,000, if those committed by lay people are included. 

7. Sexual violence against minors is a widespread scourge throughout French society. The IFOP survey, on which the CIASE report based its estimate of the total amount of abuse cases involving Church personnel, reported that 5.5 million people currently residing in France were victims of sexual violence when they were minors. It is known that the vast majority of these abuse cases take place in the family unit or in circles of friends. Although the Church represents the environment with the second-highest incidence of abuse cases, with a prevalence rate of 0.82% among all French Catholics, the report also revealed that over the same period of time there were approximately 141,000 cases in France’s public schools, excluding boarding schools.Moreover, pedophilia was widely acknowledged and even defended in French intellectual spheres of the 1970s and 1980s. In an opinion piece published in 1976, numerous prominent personalities of all political stripes (including Jack Lang, a former minister of culture and national education, Bernard Kouchner, minister of foreign affairs from 2007-2010, and the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre) asked, in the name of freedom, that the law allow adults to have sexual relations with children.