Cardinal Barbarin’s Sexual Abuse Cover-Up Conviction Raises Thorny Questions

NEWS ANALYSIS: An overview of the legal stakes of Cardinal Barbarin’s criminal conviction, just ahead of his audience with Pope Francis.

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, Francis, departs a news conference March 7 in Lyon, during which he announced that he will resign at a meeting with Pope Francis March 18, following his conviction for failing to report the sex abuse of minors by one of his priests.
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, Francis, departs a news conference March 7 in Lyon, during which he announced that he will resign at a meeting with Pope Francis March 18, following his conviction for failing to report the sex abuse of minors by one of his priests. (photo: JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — The conviction of French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon and primate of the Gauls, for failing to report sexual abuse committed by one of his priests is having an earthquake-like impact on the French Catholic world.

The six-month suspended prison sentence, handed down by the criminal court of Lyon to the cardinal March 7, was indeed unexpected, in several respects. In 2016, the public prosecutor dismissed the case against Cardinal Barbarin for insufficient evidence on some of the charges and on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired for the other charges in question.

Leading up to his conviction, Cardinal Barbarin, 68, was questioned in June 2018 by French police investigating the case of Father Bernard Preynat, according to The Associated Press. Father Preynat, whose faculties were removed in 2015, was charged in January 2016 of having sexually abused dozens of young Boy Scouts between 1970 and 1991. His case is expected to go to trial sometime this year.

In 2017, Father Preynat’s victims issued — through the French association “La parole libérée,” which has been representing them — a direct summons to initiate criminal proceedings against the cardinal and six other people in 2017 (including Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose involvement in the legal proceedings subsequently was rejected by a Vatican tribunal). While French law allows for trials to be triggered by this process, public prosecutor Charlotte Trabut did not seek a conviction through the victim-initiated legal proceedings, for the same reasons as before.

However, the criminal court came to a different conclusion after weighing the evidence presented to it: “Even though his functions gave him full access to all information and he had the possibility to analyze and communicate them in a useful way, Philippe Barbarin made the conscious choice, in order to preserve the institution to whom he belongs, not to transmit it to the justice,” the verdict stated.

The cardinal, who expressed immediately after the sentence his intention to offer his resignation to the Pope, will be received at the Vatican on Monday, March 18.


A New Precedent?

While Cardinal Barbarin’s lawyers have announced his intention to file for appeal, this criminal court decision is raising several important legal questions. The decision echoes the sentence issued against Bishop André Fort, the bishop emeritus of Orléans, who received an eight-month suspended prison sentence in November 2018 for covering up sexual abuse.

Regarding Cardinal Barbarin’s case, the court has considered the question of whether “there is a legal obligation to report, even when the statute of limitations has expired,” said Erwan Le Morhedec, a French lawyer. And, he said, the court answered that such an obligation does exist.

According to Le Morhedec, who is an active Catholic blogger known online as Koz Toujours, the French court has made a comparison between Article 434-1 of the French penal code — which states that “any person who, having knowledge of a felony the consequences of which it is still possible to prevent or limit, or the perpetrators of which are liable to commit new felonies that could be prevented, omits to inform the administrative or judicial authorities is punished by three years’ imprisonment and a fine of € 45,000” — and Article 434-3, which is specifically applicable to minors but doesn’t repeat Article 434-1’s condition that the consequences “are still possible to prevent or limit.”

The court convicted Cardinal Barbarin under Article 434-3. Therefore, the court may have deduced the purpose of these articles is to make the report compulsory under every circumstance, even when there isn’t any legal effect because of the statute of limitations.

“Such a decision can be justified in the sense that we know pedophiles are generally predators, and we can consider it is in the public interest that justice should be informed of such criminal behavior, given the risk of a multiplicity of victims,” Le Morhedec said.

However, Le Morhedec pointed out that, with the judgment, Cardinal Barbarin seems to bear the brunt of a new interpretation of the above-mentioned article, and his obligations were all the more unclear, given that these acts were committed 20 years ago.

Besides, Le Morhedec recalled, French penal law always requires both a material crime and an intentional element.

“The element of intent, that is the will to obstruct justice, is very subjective here; and one can think the current climate in the Church and in the public opinion might have had an impact,” he said. “In other cases, the cardinal clearly encouraged victims to lodge a complaint, and it could have been held to his credit.”


A ‘Show Trial’?

At the beginning of the trial, Jean-Félix Luciani, one of the cardinal’s attorneys, issued a warning about the media pressure in which the judicial proceeding took place, fearing it might become a “show trial,” as it coincided with the release of François Ozon’s film Grâce à Dieu (“Thanks Be to God”), a movie about clergy sexual abuse that was inspired by Father Preynat’s case.

“It was difficult for the court to resist such pressure through documentaries, a film about the case. … It raises true questions about the respect for justice,” Luciani said after the verdict was returned.

Such concern is shared by Opus Dei Father Thierry Sol, an associate professor of canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. In his opinion, it is important to distinguish feelings and pain about the circumstances of Father Preynat’s case, which are fully legitimate, from law and justice.

“The impact of this decision on French law also raises the question whether it will be applied, besides the Church, to every other civil educational institution, in similar cases, when it has a hierarchical structure: Will commissioners of education, ministers for education, be convicted if they are found guilty of negligence, including when criminal offenses have expired and were committed before they took office?” he said. “This question opens up the possible impact of such legal precedent on the society.”

Catholic opinion in France remains sharply divided on this matter. If a significant part of French Catholics sees the civil judgment as a necessary evil to finally purify the Church from the scourge of sexual abuse, many also condemn a “media witch hunt” that in their view made Cardinal Barbarin the “scapegoat” of parties seeking to discredit the teachings of the Church.

“The Church must be more vigilant than ever to put an end to the law of silence which has protected the perpetrators of sexual or power abuse for too long,” said Alexandre Meyer, a French spokesman of Catholic Voices, an international network that trains Catholic faithful to represent the Church in news programs and public debate.

“At the same time,” he said, “such vigilance should help avoid great servants of the Christian community being put forward for public condemnation, suffering the consequences of the misguided ways of their predecessors, when the latter didn’t take the necessary decisions in time and are no longer there to account by themselves.”

Moreover, he noted, the plague of pedophilia requires a global awareness of its impact across society, as 70% to 80% of child sexual offenses are committed by family members and relatives.

“We cannot complain about the consequences of pedophilia without dealing with its causes: pornography and its deleterious effects on the psyche, child soldiers, child prostitution and sex tourism, refugee or slave children,” he said. “It is all connected.”


A Delicate Decision for the Vatican

At a highly sensitive time for the Church and the community of believers, Pope Francis is faced with a difficult choice, as Cardinal Barbarin is expected to hand him his resignation as archbishop of Lyon when he meets with him March 18.

The Holy Father, who already refused to accept the cardinal’s resignation in 2016, could decide to await the verdict of the appellate court before taking the decision to appoint a new bishop as the head of the Archdiocese of Lyon. Indeed, to accept the resignation could be seen as an official acknowledgement of the cardinal’s guilt and as a sign of weakness in the face of media pressure.

On the other hand, by refusing to accept it, the Pope could place the Vatican under heavy criticism from those who would judge that to be an inadequate response in the current context of crisis.

When questioned by the Register about the validity of the cardinal’s resignation according to canon law, Father Sol mentioned Canon 401-2 of the Code of Canon Law, which states that a diocesan bishop “who has become less able to fulfill his office […] because of grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.”

“The incapacity to rule the diocese with the necessary serenity can be considered a grave cause and justify the resignation,” he said, predicting that even if it’s accepted that Cardinal Barbarin would remain a cardinal since he wasn’t convicted of crimes he personally committed.

“From a mere canon law point of view,” he said, “it seems difficult to speak about negligence, in the sense that the cardinal informed Rome about the situation when he got to know it and applied what he has been prescribed in 2015.”

The Register’s Europe correspondent Solène Tadié writes from Rome.