French Bishops’ President: Benedict Is Right to Link Abuse Crisis to Sexual Revolution

Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille discusses the clergy abuse crisis and other issues with the Register.

Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille
Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille (photo: Courtesy of the Diocese of Marseille)

ROME — On April 12, Pope Francis received the Bishops’ Conference of France (CEF) in a private audience in the Vatican following their spring plenary assembly in Lourdes on April 3.

The visit, which is held every year at the same period, took place after the election of a new presidency to lead the Bishops’ Conference of France. The new leaders will take office July 1 for a three-year mandate.  

Nearing the end of their mandate, the current president of the conference, Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille, vice presidents Bishop Pascal Delannoy of Saint-Denis and Archbishop Pierre-Marie Carré of Montpellier, and secretary-general Msgr. Olivier Ribadeau Dumas met the Holy Father in the office of the Apostolic Palace to discuss the recent events of the Church of France.

The Register interviewed Archbishop Pontier following his meeting with the Pope, which occurred before the Notre Dame Cathedral fire.


You’ve just had a private audience with Pope Francis. Were you able to discuss the situation in France and the various manifestations of the crisis the Church is facing there?

We had a very good conversation, which focused on interreligious dialogue and the recent visit to Abu Dhabi and Morocco. We spoke about the situation of dialogue in our respective countries, especially with Muslims and the position he tries to live and to embody through brotherhood and his search for peace and coexistence. We discussed the current climate within the Church with respect to [the] interclerical climate and our society. Regarding the intra-ecclesial situation, we discussed some issues related to the summit the Pope organized in February about the sexual-abuse crisis and which I attended on behalf of France. I reported to him what I did at the French Conference of Bishops following this summit and the various initiatives we have been taking in the country over the past five or six years. We are currently developing many projects regarding prevention, acknowledgment, financial gestures and the follow-up and support for victims on their healing journey. The Holy Father reiterated his invitation to continue the purification process of the Church and to conversion.


Your mandate as the head of the French Conference of Bishops will end in July. What assessment would you make after these six years as a president of the conference? Are you satisfied with the Church reforms so far?

I am very satisfied with our work and the progress we made at the conference, especially regarding the sexual-abuse issue. There is a unanimous agreement over the measures to be taken. We are on the right path. We really feel the human person is at the center of our responsibility. It is indispensable to find the right words and [make the right] decisions. I can see that we have to continue what we have started regarding prevention with those who are in contact with young people within the Church, regarding training in seminaries and the continuing education of the priests, so that it always takes this reality into account.

In the ecclesiastical sphere, it is important, as the Holy Father mentioned in February, to practice synodality, in order to give a proper place to the laity within the parishes and in the life of dioceses. We must understand that not everything can be centered on the authority of the priest or the bishop. In the various ecclesial councils and realities, the visibility of women must be increased. There is still some work to do on this, as well as in other areas. We have some way to go to reconsider our ecclesial functions.


Next week will be Benedict’s 92nd birthday, and he has just released his letter on abuse. What do you think about his diagnosis on the causes of the current crisis?

I have been traveling a lot during the past few days so I haven’t had the chance to have an in-depth reading yet. But I think Pope Benedict is right in saying this crisis is partly rooted in the sexual liberation of 1968. It is indeed one of the key elements of this issue. But I think this crisis is also spiritual. Clearly the following of Christ was not a priority for these people who were exercising authority in the Church. And I think the position of superiority of some ordained ministers is something that might have weakened the behavior and actions of some priests. But I think this is definitely one of the elements. After this general liberalization of May ’68, we could see there was a second wave of excesses in the ’70s, in terms of sexual abuse. The first wave was at the beginning of World War II, in ’39-’40 until the ’50s, and it decreased a bit. Then we had another surge of abuses between 1970 and 1975. Unfortunately, it continued in the ’90s, but the phenomenon was less widespread. So it is strongly connected with social issues, and May ’68 has been a very strong event.


People talk a lot nowadays about confusion and disorientation in the Church, especially over moral teachings. Why is this, and how can this be addressed?

I do not agree with this vision. I think the moral references given by the Church are clear and have never changed. I think we are just less willing to hear them, but they are very clear. On the other hand, the cultural context is not good, and it is not bringing anything good in the moral field. Therefore, it considerably weakens people. Of course, the use of disreputable and pornographic websites is deleterious, and our society seems reluctant to be aware of that.


You recently granted an interview to the French daily newspaper Provence that made headlines. You reportedly said that, someday, women or married men could be ordained. Is that your opinion?

I never said that. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify this because it is absolutely not what I think. The person who interviewed me by phone and who did the article asked me the same question two or three times, and I explained to him the crisis was a spiritual crisis and that because some people ask that married men and women should become ordained priests doesn’t mean the problem will be solved. The issue is a spiritual one; it is a problem of conversion and a problem of [living a] double life. As long as some people lead a double life, we can have all the regulations, the decisions and situations we want; we will not solve the substance of the issue. That is what I said. The journalist took a sentence out of context and presented it as if it was my opinion. But this was not my opinion at all.


What do you think about Pope Francis’ decision not to accept Cardinal Philippe Barbarin’s resignation following his initial sentence for covering up sexual abuses in his Diocese of Lyon?

I understand the decision of the Pope, who did not want to bypass French justice. Since Cardinal Barbarin filed for appeal, the verdict is not yet definitively handed down. This position is, therefore, understandable. I also understand that Cardinal Barbarin gave his resignation because he feels that to rule the diocese, it is necessary to take new steps he cannot take himself. He humbly resigns to make room for others to come. We are in an intermediate phase that cannot last too long for the good of the Diocese of Lyon. I think and I hope that Rome will soon provide clarifications and make decisions, to favor a clear organization in this diocese, in order to find peace. This is also what Cardinal Barbarin wishes.


A parliamentary commission is to be conducted to discuss the wave of anti-Christian acts in France. Do you think it could help raise public awareness on this issue?

It would be a good thing because it is the responsibility of the state. As for us bishops, we report to the police every kind of desecration or vandalism against a church. The bishop of the place usually analyses the case with his collaborators to determine whether it was a deliberate desecration or if it was committed by an unbalanced person. The consequences will vary according to the case. We are not excessively worried, but we take these things seriously. We try to analyze them peacefully, but with determination to protect our faithful.


How do you interpret these acts? Is it related to the crisis of sexual abuse or to the excesses of secularization in France?

I do not really know how to analyze them for now. We must determine whether we are facing a real wave of anti-Christian acts or if these acts are committed by unbalanced persons that do not know what they are doing. We know both cases are plausible. One must be careful before using the word “desecration,” as we must have first dismissed the option of a psychological disorder.

Register Europe correspondent Solène Tadié writes from Rome.