Just under a year ago, the archbishop of Lyon, France was found guilty of covering up sexual abuse perpetrated against children by a priest in his diocese.
Now Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (below) walks free after an appellate court overturned the guilty verdict.
The now-defrocked priest accused and convicted of sexually molesting no fewer than eighty boys over two decades is Bernard Preynat. He admitted his crimes in court earlier this month, but explained that he did not “realize the seriousness” of his actions:
I knew they were forbidden, condemnable, but I was not thinking of the consequences they could have on my victims. I did it without violence, for me it was gestures of tenderness, in which I obviously found a certain pleasure. But today I measure the consequences of my actions, I regret them, and I ask for forgiveness.
There seems to be a lot of that going around. When Barbarin appealed his guilty verdict, he also claimed to be unable to see what Preynat had done wrong:
I cannot see what I am guilty of. I never tried to hide, let alone cover up these horrible facts.
The reality, though, is that Barbarin’s child abuse was something the diocese knew about as far back as the 1970s. Barbarin admits he heard “rumors” about Preynat as early as 2010, but seems to have utterly failed to follow up, despite being in place as archbishop since 2002. He learned that the rumors were true in 2014, after a conversation with one of Preynat’s many victims.
At that time he removed Preynat from the priesthood, informing the Vatican of his crimes. But he did not contact police to allow a criminal investigation to take place.
The abuse allegations became public in 2015.
The original verdict points out that, by refusing to involve the criminal justice system, Barbarin placed the reputation of the Catholic Church in Lyon above the needs of those who suffered abuse:
In wanting to avoid scandal caused by the facts of multiple sexual abuses committed by a priest, [Barbarin] preferred to take the risk of preventing the discovery of many victims of sexual abuse by the justice system, and to prohibit the expression of their pain.
And yet, the verdict was overturned. Barbarin’s lawyer, Jean-Felix Luciani, says the logic behind the acquittal amounts to the cardinal’s intentions:
The court has just acquitted the cardinal on the fundamentals of the case, by indicating that no offence has been committed, for a number of reasons… and for one key reason in particular: that the cardinal never intended to obstruct justice.
But a lack of intention to cause harm does not erase the harm that’s been caused. This is a principle the law typically recognizes. Perhaps it’s a principle that only applies when the defendant doesn’t have the massive institutional power of the Catholic Church at his back.
Despite his acquittal, Cardinal Barbarin intends to resign from his post as archbishop:
This court decision allows me to turn a page and for the church of Lyon to open a new chapter. I will now go to Rome to renew my request. Once again, I will hand over my office as archbishop of Lyon to Pope Francis.
Barbarin offered his resignation to the pope after his conviction, but the pontiff refused to accept it until after the results of his appeal came through.
Hopefully this time it will be accepted, although it’s not clear how much that matters. The French justice system has just made it clear to the next archbishop that it’s okay to shelter abusers from criminal prosecution, as long as you can say you didn’t mean any harm.
(Screenshot via YouTube)