Vatican City, Jun 21, 2023 / 11:45 am (CNA).
French bishops announced Wednesday that the newly established National Canonical Criminal Tribunal will open an investigation into alleged abuse by clerics connected to the Paris Foreign Mission Society.
The French bishops’ conference said in a statement on June 21 that the official investigation has come at the request of the superior general of the Paris Foreign Mission Society.
The announcement comes after three French Catholic news outlets — La Croix, La Vie, and Famille Chrétienne — published a joint investigation into three cases of alleged abuse by priests connected with the society, which has a more than 350-year history of sending missionary priests to evangelize Asia.
The reports allege that Bishop Georges Colomb of La Rochelle and Saintes, a former superior of the society, sexually assaulted an adult man in 2013.
Colomb has vigorously denied any wrongdoing, expressing “incomprehension at these slanderous allegations.”
Two other priests in the society, both former missionaries in Japan, have also been accused of rape. Father Aymeric de Salvert was sent home from Sapporo by Japanese Church authorities because of a homosexual relationship and was later accused by an alleged abuse victim in France. Father Philippe R. was also sent back from Japan after his superiors at the mission society were made aware that a man had accused him of rape.
Bishop Gilles Reithinger, an auxiliary bishop of Strasbourg and former superior of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, is also accused of having mismanaged the accusations of abuse by Colomb, his predecessor as superior of the society, something Reithinger denies.
The Paris Foreign Mission Society currently has more than 180 priests and sends 150 young volunteers each year as missionaries to Asia.
The missionary religious society has an illustrious history. It has sent more than 4,000 priests as missionaries to Asia since its founding in 1658. Many of its priests suffered martyrdom in past centuries in China, Korea, and Vietnam, 23 of whom have been canonized as saints by the Catholic Church.
The preliminary canonical investigation into the alleged abuse by Paris Foreign Mission Society members will be conducted by the National Canonical Criminal Tribunal, a new legal structure established by the French bishops’ conference to deal with crimes and offenses committed by clerics and laity within the Church.
The tribunal is designed to judge most offenses recognized by Church law, including “crimes against the faith and unity of the Church,” those against “the exercise of office,” which also include financial crimes as well as certain crimes against life, dignity, and human freedom, such as sexual assaults against adults.
Cases of sexual abuse of minors fall under what canon law calls the “delicta graviora” — “the more grave delicts.” These will be tried directly by the Vatican, as will penal cases involving bishops and all appeals to decisions by the tribunal.
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