Pope Francis and the French clerical abuse/coverup report

The CIASE report’s methodology deserves – and shall no doubt receive – careful scrutiny and rigorous interrogation. But there are many hard questions that simply aren’t being addressed and answered.

A man prays inside St. Martin Church near Nantes, France, Oct. 5, 2021. (CNS photo/Stephane Mahe, Reuters)

The Catholic Church’s leading expert on sex crimes says the French bishops deserve our gratitude for their willingness to face the disclosure of decades of abuse and coverup.

“I think we have to thank the French bishops,” said Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta in a short English-language comment he gave to the official Vatican News media outlet, “for [having] the courage to confront themselves with reality.”

The line didn’t quite make it into the Vatican News writeup of the more expansive interview, which was conducted in Italian, but it leads the 58-second audio clip at the bottom of the piece.

“It’s so sad to read what the report states, and the information it gives,” Archbishop Scicluna went on to say in English, “but it is also an important step in the right direction.”

“We need to listen to victims,” he continued, “we need to empower them.”

Facing reality

“Reality,” in this case, is detailed in the CIASE report on clerical abuse and coverup in France from 1950-2020. The report is an appalling précis of incompetence, malfeasance, and deadly nonchalance on the part of bishops over seven decades.

Over 2500 pages, the report documents abuse in various contexts – parochial, scholastic, institutional, familiar – and workaday coverup, estimating some three thousand clerical perpetrators supposed to have abused some 216 thousand victims. When victims of lay perpetrators in the service of the Church are included in the tally, the number swells to 330 thousand persons abused in various ways. The number of victims is truly astounding.

The CIASE report’s methodology deserves – and shall no doubt receive – careful scrutiny and rigorous interrogation. The estimated numbers of victims are in the middle of the range given by the reporters, which runs from 165 thousand and 270 thousand victims of clerics, between 265 thousand and 396 thousand total victims, 1950-2020. Even if the numbers of victims should prove greatly inflated, the scope of the devastation will remain ghastly.

“Until the early 2000s, said the man who led the investigation, Jean-Marc Sauvé, “the Catholic Church showed a profound and even cruel indifference towards the victims.”

Good laws

Archbishop Scicluna said the Church now has “very good laws” including Pope Francis’s signature reform law, Vos estis lux mundi, with which to address the crisis of abuse and coverup. He also said we have “excellent magisterium” from Pope Francis. “We need to go from these very high and important principles enshrined in documents,” he said, “to an empowerment of our communities, and to a convinced and determined response on the ground.”

The trouble is: That’s what Vos estis lux mundi was supposed to be. “[Vos estis] applies as from June 1, 2019, for the reporting and investigation of misconduct whenever [it] may have happened,” Archbishop Scicluna told the Catholic Herald when the Vatican announced the new law in May, 2019.

“This [promulgation of Vos estis] offers a strong signal that even the leadership [of the Church] is subject not just to divine law but to canon law,” Archbishop Scicluna told reporters at the briefing in which he presented Vos estis. “No one is above the law,” he said. “[T]he procedure states this clearly.”

Asked by Vatican News in the wake of the CIASE report on abuse in the French Church, “[W]hat more can be done in the ecclesial sphere?” Archbishop Scicluna responded: “Enough with documents, enough with sermons, we have to move to action.”

Then, Archbishop Scicluna went on to talk about the laws we have, especially Vos estis and its precursor, Come una madre amorevole – “As a Loving Mother” – both promulgated amid great fanfare and touted as decisive moments in the Church’s battle against evildoers in her own ranks.

“It seems clear to me, therefore, that the laws are there and they are good, only that the reception of these norms is lacking,” Archbishop Scicluna said. “We need to assimilate these values and put them into practice.”

Archbishop Scicluna is right about that. A law that isn’t put into practice doesn’t do much good. In fact, half-measures and mere paper reforms tend rather to exacerbate crises than to ameliorate them. Why aren’t Pope Francis’s showpiece laws being enforced, widely and consistently?

That is the proverbial $64,000 question, and the time for Churchmen to give an explanation is – by Archbishop Scicluna’s own reckoning – long since passed. “Cover-up isn’t acceptable,” he said when the Vatican presented Vos estis lux mundi in May of 2019. “[I]t never was acceptable.”

Willingness to face scrutiny

In the October 2021 interview with Vatican News after the release of the French report, Archbishop Scicluna expressed some satisfaction with the Church’s willingness to face scrutiny.

“Evidently we are the only ones – and in my opinion, we do well – who give this information and do these studies,” Archbishop Scicluna said. “I would like to see other studies, other reports, involving the reality of the educational environment, of the cultural environment.”

While other institutions may not yet have come in for precisely the kind of scrutiny that informed CIASE report, the phenomenon is neither unrecognized nor unstudied. “The Catholic Church,” says Mr. Sauvé in his summary of the findings, “is the place where the prevalence of sexual violence is at its highest, other than in family and friend circles.”

“Faced with this scourge,” Mr. Sauvé also says, “for a very long time the Catholic Church’s immediate reaction was to protect itself as an institution and it has shown complete, even cruel, indifference to those having suffered abuse.”

While Mr. Sauvé acknowledges that “the Church has taken important steps to prevent sexual violence and to deal with cases effectively,” since the year 2000, he also says “these measures have often been very late coming and unequally applied once in place.”

“Imposed in reaction to events,” Mr. Sauvé continues, “they appear to the Commission to be generally insufficient.”

In other public comments regarding his report, Mr. Sauvé called for fairer Church trials, and for victims to be informed not only regarding the outcome of proceedings, but also of the progress of the trials themselves.

What more can be done?

Responding to those calls, Archbishop Scicluna said that he has suggested such changes himself. He cited an article he published in the Periodica de Re Canonica – an academic journal published by the Pontifical Gregorian University – and an invitation he received, to participate in an upcoming seminar organized by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

“Dedicated precisely to the rights of victims in canonical processes,” Archbishop Scicluna explained, the seminar – a closed session for experts scheduled to take place in December, Scicluna told me when I wrote to ask him, because I hadn’t seen the event on the PCPM calendar – is to be “a comparative study in order to understand exactly how they act in other civil jurisdictions and to be able to suggest useful practices in canon law.”

Canonical tribunals do not publish charges, and trials at canon law are not open to the public. They are mostly conducted on paper, and verdicts are reported – if they are reported at all – in vague terms. The opacity of canonical process undermines public confidence in the Church’s ability to deliver justice to both victims and the accused. It can also embolden wrongdoers.

Archbishop Scicluna is not the only experienced sex crimes expert to express the desire to see greater transparency in Church proceedings.

“[Secrecy] has long undermined that confidence,” Fr. Hans Zollner, S.J. – the head of the Church’s flagship academic research center for child protection at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University –told the Catholic Herald in April of 2020, “but, when Pope Francis abolished the application of the Pontifical Secret to cases of abuse, many people realized that serious steps are being taken towards necessary transparency.”

The abolition of pontifical secrecy in abuse cases, however, has not brought greater willingness to share information regarding canonical proceedings. It certainly hasn’t changed the culture of reservation, but Fr. Zollner also told the Herald that other measures were then under consideration, which would favor greater transparency.

“[The measures under consideration] more clearly define the rights of all parties involved, first and foremost the rights of the victims.” Fr. Zollner also told the Herald in April, 2020. He did not delve into any specifics, however. If there were raised expectations, many of them came crashing down in June of this year, when the Vatican published the new Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, on penal procedure and sanctions in the Church.

No other remedy?

At the press conference presenting the new chapter of the Church’s legal code, Crux’s Rome Bureau Chief, Ines San Martin, asked: “How can scandal be repaired if proceedings and outcomes are kept secret?”

“The repair of scandal should be foreseen in the sentence [of the court], itself,” replied the President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Archbishop Filippo Iannone, from the dais. “It is the judge,” Iannone went on to say, “who … also decides the modalities by which the condemnation might be rendered public[.]”

“This is one of those things that must be evaluated case-by-case,” added the Council’s secretary, Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta. “There is no other remedy,” said Arrieta. “There is no other way.”

In his remarks to Vatican News this week, Archbishop Scicluna mentioned how Vos estis lux mundi already provides for abuse and coverup victims to be informed of the conclusion of investigations and trial outcomes. “So,” he said, “already we have a small sign of an opening towards a more institutional, let’s say more structural, dialogue with victims.”

It is reasonable to wonder, at this point, how many small signs of an opening to structural reform Churchmen can give against squandered chances to effect real change, before candid observers may fairly determine that their hearts just aren’t in it.

From Buffalo in New York and Cincinnati in Ohio, to Nashville and Knoxville in Tennessee and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, toLyon in France – where Pope Francis rejected the cardinal-archbishop’s resignation even after he admitted to disastrous failures of oversight – Pope Francis’s laws have been inconsistently applied, or not applied at all, to say nothing of the scandals in Germany and Poland.

Short time to act

There is something else alarming in the French report, to hear Mr. Sauvé tell it: “While, in absolute and relative terms, these acts of violence were in decline up until the early 1990s, they have since stopped decreasing.”

Pope Francis did not create the crisis of leadership in the Church. He is not wrong to attribute “clericalism” as a principal cause of the rot in leadership culture.

In 2018, however, Pope Francis accused three courageous survivor-advocates of calumniating a bishop –Juan Barros – who had been a chief lieutenant to the man who was then their country’s most notorious abuser-priest. Then-Fr. Fernando Karadima was, in essence, Chile’s Theodore Edgar “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. A canonical criminal tribunal had convicted Karadima of horrendous abuse, largely on the strength of testimony given by the three survivor-advocates Pope Francis had accused of slandering Karadima’s darling Bishop Barros with accusations he had turned a blind eye – and worse – to his mentor’s predations.

Then, Pope Francis doubled down on his accusation when journalists offered him the chance to revise and extend his remarks. When Francis had  face-to-face with Chilean reality, he thought better of his attitude toward the business. “I was part of the problem,” he reportedly said in 2018.

That’s when Pope Francis bought the crisis, lock, stock, and barrel.

In his remarks to the faithful gathered for the weekly General Audience on Wednesday, October 6th, Pope Francis noted the “considerable number” of aggressions the French report had disclosed just the day before. “To the victims,” he said, “I wish to express my sadness and my pain for the traumas they have endured and my shame, our shame, my shame that for so long the Church has been incapable of putting this at the center of its concerns, assuring them of my prayers.”

On the one hand, the spiritual closeness of the Roman Pontiff is nothing to shake a stick at. Papal prayers are powerfully effective.

On the other, there is a reason “thoughts and prayers” is an internet meme.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 237 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. Child abuse is not only a crime but it is also a sin. It harms the sinner but also the victims – more so. It has been condemned since pre-historic times along with other sexual sins. The punishment was, as we know, for the sinner to be stoned. Jesus did not go along with that form of punishment. But over the years, attitudes in the west changed. Secular governments grew less and less concerned about crimes of a sexual nature. Yes, we were becoming permissive.
    In the fifties and sixties, police took little or no action against people who would have been stoned in those old days. I heard people joking about the activities of pedophiles, or trivializing them. Anyway, who would take action if complaints were made. To its credit, the Catholic Church sought professional help for the sinners and even sent them to retreat houses. Not many complaining voices were heard then. And the Bishops had a few problems. They were conditioned to deal with sin (and make forgiveness available to sinners), but this was different. And the harm done to victims had not been well known. They tried transferring perpetrators which even government schools and departments did.
    Our Church has to continue helping the sinners but making sure that we do not have victims anymore. The victims also need our help.

  2. Many reading this informative article with links may be put off from opening all of them as you need to subscribe to the Catholic Herald for them to be fully opened. Thankfully the last link given opens the article “Pope Francis’s letter on abuse was not enough” and is well worth reading.


    From the above article “Pope Francis and the French clerical abuse/coverup report”

    “On the other, there is a reason “thoughts and prayers” is an internet meme

    Colloquially, the terms meme and Internet meme are used more loosely, having become umbrella terms for any piece of quickly-consumed comedic content that may not necessarily be intended to spread or evolve.

    Or in tandem from one of my previous posts

    How much more of this ongoing never-ending smiling hypocrisy of ‘hail fellow well met’ can be tolerated without some true humility been shown by the leadership (Bishops) to the flock.

    Please consider continuing via the link


    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. the French bishops deserve our gratitude for their willingness to face the disclosure of decades of abuse and coverup…what other options were open to them?

  4. Once again it is obvious that the Church remains standing in spite of its popes, bishops and priests. That for two thousand years it hasn’t collapsed as an institution from incompetence and corruption that would have been the demise of any other institution is only because Christ keeps His promises.

    The Church will remain and the Truth will always be found in its official teaching only because Christ promised us that the the Holy Spirit would remain with the Church forever.

    God bless those clerics who have remained faithful. Their reward will be great.

  5. Altieri is correct. Many hard questions must be asked. Answered. “Three survivor-advocates Pope Francis had accused of slandering Karadima’s darling Bishop Barros with accusations he had turned a blind eye – and worse – to his mentor’s predations”. Not to cast all the responsibility on Pope Francis, his response in the Karadima scandal indicates two questions that must be asked not addressed here. Clericalism surely an issue doesn’t fully explain a long standing predisposition of clergy for their “cruel indifference to those having suffered abuse.” First question, were the victims male or female, young boys or girls, or young adults? Second, were the clergy perpetrators simply abusive men, or were they abusive homosexual predators? If we use Karadima as a model the answers to the first are young boys, young male adults. To the second, abusive homosexual clerical predators. A third question is why concealed and protected? That question may not have a direct answer [in deference to Chris Altieri’s implied unanswered questions] although the implication is the abusers were protected by like minded clergy and hierarchy, as was the Karadima case. This raises the issue of strata for the immense scandal of long term clerical abuse, the predominance within authoritative clergy ranks of adult homosexuals. Again, although we can’t cast all the blame on Francis, Altieri ends with a psychological inference from the meme thoughts and prayer practice. We Need Action [Altieri Catholic Herald 2018]. Easy enough to discover. More difficult, his policy of appeasement and assignment to ranking positions of male homosexual advocates.

    • Father Peter, the answer to 3rd question is the second great skeleton in the Catholic closet:Freemasonic networks that transformed and corrupted the Catholic hierarchy. Until the Catholic Church comes clean on Rampolla’s network, the consequence all falls on the Divine Institutional victim as planned. French Catholic indicate this report was produced and presented by a Freemason: so that it one avenue that the French Bishops have evidently decided remains protected…

    • I disagree with you as often as there is a day without a single traffic jam on the Long Island Expressway Father, but I believe there is a great deal more for which to fault Francis given the climate he helps to create. The crisis involves more than the effects of particular repugnant episodes. Even when the enormity is finally acknowledged, the decades long pervasive ecclesial culture of minimizing sin is seldom mentioned. Aside from his recycling many of the reductionist crude criticisms by uninformed Catholics and non-Catholics towards Catholicism throughout the 56 years of the post VII era, Francis has consistently demonstrated his endorsement of the prevailing bias by liberal moral theologians who have treated their entire unconstrained enterprise as either a project of imparting guilt avoidance or pursuing ways to construe what was formerly thought of as evil sorts of actions as not necessarily evil. The secular world hates guilt, and modern Catholics have always had the avoidance of embarrassment at cocktail parties for being Catholics as their highest priority. High prelates have been doing much the same in various ways. Now we have a pontificate that unreservedly peddles the world’s oldest superstition of central authority as the cure for all our problems. It is no longer sin that separates us from God. When has Francis ever shown a strong willingness to invoke repentance to be on an equal footing with his missionary idea of mercy, which he overstates to the point of sanctimony towards anyone who affirms the idea of exceptionless moral norms, whom he insults as “ideologues,” moral truth being the very subject matter of the Dubia he smugly ignores? Reading Amoris Laetitia, it doesn’t seem he can even entertain the real world possibilities that those in second and third and fourth marriages ended up that way through a continuing pursuit of sin, not from having pursued a sacramental life.

    • When 90 percent of all the victims are of male sex, not children but teenage boys and seminarians it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out that the Church has an enormous problem with homosexual clergy; priests and Bishops.

  6. If it is a fact that sexual violence/abuse in the Catholic Church in France is a close second behind “family and friend circles”, couldn’t a real change for reform be modifying the “confessional seal” in a way that the public and perpetrators never know the source of information that lead to criminal prosecution in state courts? Surely in Cstholic countries many of the perpetrators revealed enough in confession that would give the priest a reason to report anonymously to authority, even report other priests if they heard something in confession.

    • Doing ANYTHING to damage the confessional seal is quite dangerous and will NEVER stop with forcing reporting on only one sin. Do you honestly think sexual abuse is worse than murder, for example? What about someone who embezzles tens of millions and the result is the company collapses with hundreds out of work?? This can go on and on, justifying reporting penitents. First of all I think NOBODY is apt to confess sins of this kind. A person who does this sort of crime generally lacks a real conscience, whether or not they are ordained. Something is mentally amiss. The seal of the confessional is SACRED and cannot be tinkered with and the govt needs to butt OUT of church function at this level.Second, the priest hearing a confession would be within his rights to withhold forgiveness in the confessional if he had reason to think the behavior would continue. Finally, in spite of the ongoing titillation of the press where the church is concerned on this subject, priests have no monopoly on pedophilia. News accounts are full of doctors, coaches and teachers who have done the same.They are just not trumpeted in quite the same salacious manner. Maybe because in part its not as easy to lump them under one heading. Going back in a report 70 or 80 years looking for incidents is a way to boost the numbers to shocking levels and make them seem contemporary, when they are not.Seventy years ago? All parties are likely dead. I again state my opinion that the church needs to preach MORE about ALL types of sexual sins, much more frequently. Not only to the parishioners. It sadly seems some clergy can stand the reminders as well.Sin, especially sexual sin, is seldom talked about these days and if they want this issue brought under control , it needs to be spoken about. Big time.

  7. The fundamental problem is as Bishop Morlino stated in his letter in 2018: the prevalence of homosexual abuse, and the “non-chalance” characteristic of Bishops, who ascend to be Bishops because “non-chalance” is a feature of the narcissistic clericalism cult.

    Note well that men such as Bishop Scicluna and the Pontiff Francis are incapable of expressing anger at the cruel injustice of sex abuse of teen boys. They can never muster anything but the flaccid PR-speak that they are “saddened.”


    • Chris, child abuse is a very serious offence which has terrible consequences for the victim as well as for the perpetrator. I sincerely hope that the Church will not express anger because that is a deadly sin. Our faith is built on rejecting sin and also on compassion and forgiveness. As a crime, it is the duty of the state to deal with it. Only the state can imprison people for crimes. As a sin, the Church has to reach out to both – the victim and the perpetrator.
      It is true that most of the abuse victims we hear about happened to teen boys. Sexual sins committed with or against adults also happen but no one talks about them. And, I have a strong feeling that had these criminals been in charge of girls schools, we could have had female victims too. Let us pray that our brothers and sisters who decide to serve us as priests and nuns may be given the grace to serve faithfully.

      • Mal:

        In general, we all can conclude that the perpetuation of protecting sexual abusers, which we know for the Church means in over 80% of the abuse homosexual predation against teenage boys, indicates that barring some exceptions, the Church episcopacy and its chanceries and the sitting Pontiff have contempt for God’s law, for Canon Law, and for the civil law. Hence, there is silence, because as Governor Keating warned in 2003, when he publicly resigned as Chairman of the US National Review Board, and as Judge Anne Burke finally admitted in 2018 or 2019 (15 long years after likewise serving on the Review Board, and at the time opposing Keating), when she publicly resigned from the Knights of Malta, the mark of organized criminals is “Omertà.”

        Well did Jesus prophecy about this on that Friday 2000 years ago: “If this is what they do in the green wood, then what shall be done with the dry?”

  8. I do not believe these numbers. That means each abuser assaulted more than 70 each. That is way more than the John Jay report said for the US. The methods need to be investigated.

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