Paris (CNSNews.com) – The biggest trial in France to date dealing with alleged sex abuse in the Catholic Church looks likely to end in acquittal, after the prosecutor declined to press for a conviction against a cardinal accused of protecting a priest suspected of having abused young boys in the 1980s and 90s.
Earlier the Vatican declined to allow the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, to testify in the trial in Lyon, citing diplomatic immunity.
On trial are Cardinal of Lyon Philippe Barbarin and five former members of his diocese, whose actions when made aware in 2014 of the earlier alleged abuse of boy scouts came under scrutiny.
Prosecutor Charlotte Trabut told the court this week that the statute of limitations had run out on charges of failing to help a person in danger.
The decision was not a surprise because her office had dismissed a preliminary inquiry for the same reasons in 2016. But French law allows victims to press ahead with a trial anyway, which they decided to do in this case.
“Even if there is no conviction this trial has provided an opportunity to show the complicity of Catholic dignitaries in this case of pedophilia,” an association representing the accusers, La Parole Libérée, said afterwards.
Barbarin will only know on March 7 if the judge agrees with Trabut’s decision or decides to convict him on courts on not helping a person in danger and non-disclosure of sexual assault of a minor.
Alexandre Hezez, now 44, was first to accuse Father Bernard Preynat of sexually assaulting him at ages eight to 11.
Hezez testified that he had approached Barbarin in 2014 with his accusations but was dismissed, and decided subsequently to write to the prosecution authorities.
Barbarin, however, claimed to have “acted immediately” after meeting with Hezez in 2014, and that after consulting Rome was told, “it is necessary to dismiss the priest, but without scandal.”
Barbarin said he received instructions in 2015 from Ladaria at the Vatican not to give Preynat any more responsibility and not allow him contact with minors. He said Ladaria also instructed him to avoid public scandal.
Preynat was removed from ministry in 2015, and is scheduled to stand trial separately later this year.
A total of nine people have testified about alleged sexual assaults by Preynat while they were young scouts, but the association representing some of them claimed others were reluctant to testify and the true number of victims may never be known.
“I have never tried to hide, let alone cover these horrible acts,” Barbarin said in his defense.
Trabut told the court that “by not allowing Cardinal Ladaria Ferrer to testify on what happened at the time, the church demonstrated impunity in front of our justice system and the victims.”
One of the lawyers for the complainants, Nadia Debbache, said the court regretted the absence of Ladaria.
“Touching children is a crime,” Christine Pedotti, director of Christian Testimony – a newspaper that is unaffiliated to any church or religious institution – said on television. “Churchmen did not understand the difference between a sin and a crime.”
Jean Boudot, a lawyer representing some of Preynat’s alleged victims told reporters the prosecutor’s decision was a logical one from the legal standpoint.
But the trial allowed for a debate and for Barbarin and the other five defendants to be heard,” he said. “That’s already a step forward for the complainants.”