The capitulation of the French Episcopate

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

French, italiano

The French Bishops made a spectacle of themselves, in Lourdes, last month; shaken by the scandals of terrible crimes, under maximum pressure from public “opinion”, they took a stand and made decisions with immense consequences for the future, in regards to their own loss of dignity and credibility, and in regards to the censure which will sanctioned, even more, the mission of the Church.

At the origin, we find the negligence of many: though aware of sexual crimes perpetrated by some of their priests on minors, these bishops neglected to investigate and take administrative action or to have them judged and sentenced by their ecclesiastic tribunals (we would like to point out this is exactly their fault, and not the fact they did not denounce them to the State criminal courts which, if they wanted to, would have had all the opportunity to get involved later on[1]). They handled these affairs as they are used to – in a lax way – when handling other scandalous demeanors of clerics against chastity, that is to say by removing them from the location where the sinful situation occurred and by sending them to an other. To remediate these deficiencies, a disposition of the Constitution Pastor Bonus of 28 June 1988 reorganizing the Roman Curia, decided that the delicta graviora, (the more grave delicts concerning the sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance, as well as delicts against morals committed by a cleric with a minor[2]) was in the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: now the CDF can either take on the cause or it can let it be administered, under its supervision, by the tribunal of the diocese (or of an institute), the Congregation most often ordering a trial through administrative procedures (the possibility to pronounce the deposition by extra-judiciary decree was open in 2010)[3].

But, second mistake, a succession of matters of the sort being brought to criminal courts and facing public opinion, the French Bishops, following those of Germany and other countries, threw themselves into a whirling sequence of mea culpas. They decided to leave to an “Independent Commission on sexual abuse in the Church“ (CIASE), presided by Jean-Marc Sauvé, Vice-President emeritus of the Council of State, the care to investigate on this matter over a period of seventy years, from 1950 to present. In fact, the appeal for witnesses allowed the commission to make contact with 6,471 persons with complaints: 3,652 phone interviews, 2,459 emails and 360 letters, but only 153 examinations of plaintiffs. Then, by applying methods of evaluation based on polls, it extrapolated to 330,000 persons considered not as plaintiffs but as victims of either clerics, religious, or laities at the service of the Church since 1950, and the number of priests and religious criminals between 2,900 and 3,200. In this time of moral collapse, this extrapolation draws certainly an exaggerated picture of what morals there is among ecclesiastics in regards to the crimes involved. Yet, the complaints heard by the Sauvé Commission and the matters judged in respect to pedophilia are enough suggest that there are many more offenses to clerical chastity which classically is found in times of ecclesiastic decline but of which nothing is said because they are not considered delicts or crimes by the justice system.

The CIASE report, with its pretentious and moralizing tones, has become, as could be expected, an infuriating device at the hands of the media. Convinced the “world” needed one of these  fashionable theatrical repentance, and eaten by a remorse all the more demanding that it was undefined, the bishops adopted the suicidal behavior they were signified they should. And they did it in regards to a couple of points especially, related to each other.

An abdication of the Law

The watchword is to indemnify the victims, which is going to ruin many dioceses, most of them already weakened, since the total of reparations that should be paid to victims has already been estimated – estimated how? we don’t really know – to millions of Euros.

This notion of compensation of victims of pedophile criminal acts lacks clarity, to say the least, in regards to its origin and its signification. It is in the United States, starting at the end of the 1980’s, that the public justice system made dioceses responsible by condemning them to pay indemnities, sometimes gigantic. After that, in many countries the episcopates have, of their own, set up a system of compensation. They are designed as some sorts of collective punishments that the world inflects on the Church found guilty.

But, they hardly relate with public and canonical usage. Case law in France took some time to recognize reparation for moral damages, the pretium doloris, of pain which is non-physical but only moral. If the Court of Cassation, as soon as 1946, has recognized that pain implied a reparation, the Council of State did not recognize it until 1961. A certain aversion actually came from a principle which establishes that pain cannot have a monetary value, principle that our mercantile oriented civilization does not consider. Yet, in every cases of compensation for damages, it is the person guilty of the crime that is to pay for these damages. As to Canon Law, it recognizes the principle of reparation for damages (canon 128) and organizes it in its penal code (canon 1729), but the Church hardly has any means of coercion to enforce any ruling, and in the case of sexual crimes, the compensation she would order would come in addition to the civil compensations already paid or that have been awarded.

The CIASE commission, in this regard, remains in the spirit of the time. Its report lays three principles, endorsed by the Conference of Bishops, the Church must:

  1. Put in place “a procedure of recognizing the violence that has been perpetuated, even when there is prescription.”
  2. Recognize its “systemic” responsibility in these violence.
  3. Thus, offer “compensation for damages”

In a wind of panic, we come to abdicate the law, noted a few years ago Fr. Bernard du Puy-Monthrun, Dean Emeritus of the school of Canon Law in Toulouse, France, who considers very serious the incompetence of the episcopate[4]. It remains still that offering a compensation implies naming the actions of the criminal and designating the victims, which requires usually a competent tribunal. The CIASE does not care for that and has indicated to the French Conference of Bishops the process to follow: create “an independent authority, outside the Church”, which will be in charge of receiving complaints from victims and of having them compensated by the institution.

This is what the Conference of Bishops did by setting up the Instance Nationale Indépendante de Reconnaissance et de Réparation, the INIRR (Recognition and Compensation Independent National Authority), “with the necessary financial support”: on the one hand, they are plaintiffs for matters not yet judged who will be accepted as fit to receive monetary compensation and, on the other hand, it is a legal person indeterminate (the Church, the Church in France),  which will be sentenced to pay on behalf of those people guilty (predators and eventually superiors who acted with negligence). As a result, this commission will be de facto provided a jurisdiction totally spontaneous, and will act as a tribunal judging without contradictory debate and making decisions which will give no options for appeals.

The Church in France as a whole (which is in no way a legal person in regards to the law of the Church or to French Law), will pay this compensation with funds coming from the dioceses, especially by the sell of real-estate, and this contrary to French law, because they are the property of diocesan associations which statutes stipulate their goal is to maintain and meet the financial need of the Church.” Cases are going to be brought to the courts in numbers. And before that, there is much uncertainty that the diocesan Councils for Economic Affairs and the Colleges of Consultors, whose assent is necessary (canon 1292), will agree to transfer property titles.

A Church that is not holy but sinful

The other point, more grievous in essence, is in the order of ecclesiology: if the Church indeed must pay, She must be guilty.

The CIASE asked that “the systemic responsibility of the Church be recognized” and the elements which contributed to the failure of the institution be examined. It looked into the doctrine and teachings of the Catholic Church, which gave rise to “diversions, denaturation and perversions and were susceptible to have encouraged these sexual crimes.” These denaturations, according to the Commission, refer to the “clericalism” denounced by Pope Francis. This clericalism is essentially: “the excessive sacralization of the person of the priest” and “the excessive valorization of the celibacy and of the charisms of the priest.” In other words, priests disturbed by the obligation of celibacy have abused of their dominant position on minors to perpetuate crimes. What ever the value of these affirmations, to conclude to the culpability of the Church, She has to be guilty in any manner whatsoever regarding the imposition of celibacy and the organization of a clerical state above the laity’s. The CIASE actually pointed out that some texts from Tradition, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, could have “unfortunately” represented a fertile ground, one of an outlook on sexuality excessively taboo.”

The French Conference of Bishops (CEF) adopted the conclusion of the Commission – “systemic responsibility of the Church” – along with some considerations apparently less clear: “Operations, mentalities, practices in the mist of the Catholic Church have allowed these acts to be perpetuated and have prevented they be reported and punished” (CEF, 5 November 2021). We go from operations in the Church enabling crime, to the responsibility of the Church in regards to these operations of the Church founded by Jesus Christ, His Holy Spouse!

Fr. Yves Congar spoke rightly with the title of his book published in 1950: True and False Reform in the Church. The true reforms of the Church, of a holy Church in herself but made of sinners, have been enterprises of recovery of the papacy, the episcopate, of fights against the corruption of clerics, of a return to the discipline of the Beatitudes, in short, of a withdrawal from all the corruption of a sinful world in order to engage in a personal conversion and to convert the world (Jn 17, 16, 18). The demanding return for the clergy to doctrinal purity and morals has always been the pillar of true reforms in the Church. But, there it is, that the one started half a century ago and which seems to experience a certain apotheosis today, not only did not correct the morals of the clergy but, in the end, results in blaming its own supernatural identity and in calling the Church a sinner. Rather, shouldn’t we think it is this so-called reform which is sinful?

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] Certainly, the new Code of Canon Law did not retain the privilegium fori (regarding a special tribunal in civil and criminal causes before an ecclesiastic judge, canon 120 of the old CIC), but clerics remain to be judged first and foremost by the bishops and the tribunals appointed by them.
[2] minor below the age of sixteen, before the motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela of 30 April 2001, below the age of eighteen after.
[3] It is to be noted that the delay for prescription for sexual crimes against minors is, since 2010, is of 20 years, with due regard to the right of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to derogate from prescription in individual cases.
[4] “Agressions sexuelles dans l’Eglise : séisme et effacement du droit”, Smart Reading Presse, 14 September, 2018.