France's bishops' conference is already dealing with an uncomfortable abuse scandal in its own ranks when an even more shocking case triggers shock waves. A confession of abuse arrives from Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, one of the highest Catholic ministers in France, during the autumn session of the Bishops' Conference in Lourdes.
The public prosecutor's office in Marseille has now launched preliminary investigations into the clergyman for serious sexual harassment. The authority announced on Tuesday that the exact nature of the reported acts and their dating would have to be checked and those involved would have to be heard.
"Behaving in a Reprehensible Way"
The former leader of France's Catholic Bishops' Conference has admitted molesting a 14-year-old girl in the 1980s. The French bishops' conference published a corresponding letter on Monday at an unscheduled press conference. In it, the 78-year-old accused himself of "behaving in a reprehensible way" towards the girl.
Advisor to Pope Francis
Ricard was formerly Archbishop of Bordeaux. He headed the bishops' conference from 2001 to 2007. As a cardinal, he is also an advisor to Pope Francis. Because of the admitted deeds, he decided to "insert a time of retreat and prayer," explained Ricard. Today's chairman of the conference, Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, described the cardinal's confession on Monday as a "shock". A total of ten mostly former bishops in France have been targeted by the judiciary or internal church investigations in connection with allegations of abuse.
Probably hundreds of thousands of victims
It has long been clear that the Catholic Church in France has to deal with a large-scale abuse problem. A study presented in October last year concluded that an estimated 216,000 children and young people have been victims of sexual abuse in the country's Catholic Church since the 1950s. Including the facilities operated by the Church, the number of victims is estimated at 330,000. However, only a few of those affected identified themselves as victims to the church or the authorities.
Although the church also acknowledged institutional responsibility for the mass abuse of children and young people, perpetrators were protected until recently. That's how it was at the bishops' conference until Ricard's confession about Bishop Michel Santier, who allegedly resigned in 2020 for health reasons. The media recently revealed that Santier had been sanctioned by the church for allegations of abuse and had vacated the post - but the church had not made this public at the time. In the processing of these circumstances, the letter from Ricard burst on Monday.