Catholic Church in France Considers the Consequences of the French Report on Sexual Abuse

The French bishops have expressed concern over the Ciase Report’s recommendation that the seal of confession should be reformed

Confessionals in the Abbey Sainte-Croix in Quimperle, Brittany.
Confessionals in the Abbey Sainte-Croix in Quimperle, Brittany. (photo: makasana / Shutterstock)

PARIS — After the shock comes the time for reflection and action: Two weeks after the Oct. 5 publication of the Ciase Report on “Sexual Violence in the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2020,” the French bishops are working on new resolutions to be discussed and adopted during their November plenary assembly. 

A matter of concern for France’s Church leaders, as they prepare for this assembly, is the pressure now being exerted by French political leaders for changes to be made that would undermine the seal of sacramental confession.

On the basis of a survey, as well as 243 testimonies, 2,819 letters and the Church’s archives, the report stated that some 216,000 children have been sexually abused by members of the clergy over the past 70 years. The total number of abuse cases involving minors in the Catholic Church in France rises to 330,000, when those committed by laypeople are included. 

Established and funded by the Catholic Church in France in 2018 to shed light on sexual abuse within the Church and determine how these cases have been dealt with in order to help the Church better address abuse cases in the future, the independent commission has made 45 recommendations in its report, some of which are already subject to controversy. 

Indeed, in addition to recommendations that are pretty similar to those already voted by the French bishops during their last plenary assembly in March 2021 — like the creation of a special council for the prevention and fight against sexual abuse, better training for priests, spaces for listening and dialogue and financial compensation for the victims — the commission’s president, Jean-Marc Sauvé, also called the Church to reconsider the confessional secrecy concerning sexual abuse. 


Endangered Seal of Confession?

In an Oct. 6  interview with France Info following the publication of the report, the president of the Bishops’ Conference of France (CEF), Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, reaffirmed the sacrosanct nature of the seal of confession that “binds on us, and in that respect, is stronger than the laws of the Republic.” 

Such a statement, however, triggered an uproar in public opinion and in the political class, which caused the archbishop to be summoned by French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Oct. 12. 

Before the French Parliament the same day, the minister compared the confidentiality of confession to professional secrecy, pointing out that there are exceptions to this secrecy in criminal law, particularly in cases of crimes committed against children under 15 years of age. In other words, the government is now contemplating amending the law for confessors, to place them on an equal footing with lawyers and other secular professionals. 

The concern in the Catholic world intensified after media reports suggested that, following his meeting with the interior minister, Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort had conceded that priests should inform police of admissions of abuse made by penitents during confession.

In an interview with the Register, Karine Dalle, the spokeswoman for the CEF, sought to reassure the Catholic faithful, saying that French Catholic authorities do not intend to compromise on the Church’s teaching with regard to the seal of confession and that canon law, which is international, cannot be changed for France.  

“In no case did the archbishop say that the secrecy of confession would be put aside. He never said that,” Dalle told the Register. “But if the state tells us that priests must report crimes against minors revealed in confession, there would be an obligation to break the secrecy of confession; this would mean that the priests concerned would be excommunicated by Rome,” she said, adding that some adjustments may be proposed, “which Rome will accept or not.”

However, according to Father Thierry Sol, associate professor of canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, such arrangements are very difficult to envisage. That’s because the very nature of the sacrament of confession is not comparable to professional secrecy, although the French law would facilitate this misleading analogy. The secrecy of confession, Father Sol pointed out, is not an ecclesiastical obligation decided by the Church. “The priest receives the confession in the name of God: in fact, it is God only who receives the confession and the information is not ‘available’ for the confessor,” he told the Register. 

There is thus an important distinction to make, between what the Church characterizes as the internal and external forum. According to Father Solather Sol, while doctors or lawyers have knowledge of external and visible facts, in the sacrament of confession, the facts disclosed are in direct relation to the conscience, which is “the most intimate part of the human person, his soul, therefore what is most inviolable.”

Quoting the 2019 note of the Apostolic Penitentiary on this topic, he then stressed the fact that neither the bishops nor the Pope can modify or reduce the seal of confession, since it is of divine right. 

The Vatican note cites  recent remarks by Pope Francis, who stated that “although it is not always understood by the modern mentality […] the sacramental seal is indispensable and no human power has jurisdiction over it, nor lay any claim to it.” 

The note continues, “The inviolable secrecy of Confession comes directly from the revealed divine right and is rooted in the very nature of the Sacrament, to the point of not admitting any exception in the ecclesial sphere, nor, least of all, in the civil one.”

In addition to its sacramental dimension, confession also represents for many young victims a safe space to speak, where the child’s word can be expressed freely.  

Karine Dalle said that feedback from confessors has shown the value of secrecy in the fight against abuse. 

“When the confession is over, the priest waits for a moment and then goes to the child and asks him if he can say again what he said, but this time outside the confession,” she said, highlighting that according to the report, almost all abusers were themselves victims of sexual abuse in their childhood and couldn’t talk about their trauma. “This is what the anticlericals don’t want to understand because they don’t know all this context.”

Furthermore, the CEF’s spokeswoman is convinced that abolishing part of the confidentiality of confession for sexual abuse of minors will also deter abusers from confessing their crime, which would make the situation even more complicated. 


Will the Faithful’s Donations Be Diverted to the Victims? 

The other main contentious issue resulting from the commission’s recommendations is the question of financial compensation to persons recognized as victims of sexual abuse. Such a measure was already mentioned in the 11 resolutions against pedophilia endorsed by the French bishops during their plenary assembly of March 2021 and then presented to the Ciase ahead of the publication of the report.  

Since the Church relies  on donations that are given for religious purposes, the thorny question of the source of funding for the compensation of victims necessarily arose. 

In his talk on the occasion of the presentation of the Sauvé report, François Devaux, founder of the victim’s  association La Parole Libérée, strongly pressured the bishops to compensate all the victims, which aroused perplexity and concern among the faithful about the prospect their donations would be used for this purpose, at a time when the local Church’s finances are already in difficulty. 

In fact, the Church can’t sell its buildings for the purpose of compensation, contrary to what several commentators suggested, since most of these buildings are legacies that cannot be sold for nonreligious purposes, or transferred to the ownership to the state with respect to all buildings built before 1905. 

“We must reassure all the faithful, we will not take their money,” Dalle said, mentioning the recent creation of an independent fund to which everyone — not just the Catholic faithful — can give freely to support the victims.

The Ciase Report, for its part, called for an individual mechanism to compensate the victims, on a case-by-case basis. The commission’s president also communicated that the faithful shouldn’t have to pay for the crimes committed by clergymen. 

The French bishops will vote and present their new proposals on the basis of the commission’s recommendations during their next plenary assembly in Lourdes on Nov. 2-8, to which they also invited the victims.