French bishops pledge to expose paedophilia, 'even historic cases'

Paris - The Catholic Church in France on Tuesday pledged to shed light on all cases of paedophilia, including "historic cases", following a scandal over an archbishop accused of covering up a priest's crimes.

Bishops decided that special groups would be set up to listen to complaints from victims of sexual abuse and an "independent national commission" would be set up to investigate, led by a lay person.

"Individual cases remain in our dioceses, even historic cases, and we need to shed light on them," said Archbishop Georges Pontier, president of the French bishops conference.

"We pledge to do this work just as we treat cases brought to our attention, particularly by victims," he said.

So-called "listening cells" will be set up in every diocese to hear complaints from victims, Pontier added.

The measures were announced after the case of Archbishop of Lyon Philippe Barbarin re-opened the debate about paedophilia in the Church in France.

Barbarin is the focus of two investigations focusing on accusations that he failed to inform prosecutors about Bernard Preynat, a priest who has admitted sexually abusing boy scouts he was supervising in the Lyon area of central France more than 25 years ago.

Preynat was charged in January after confessing he had abused children.

A group of victims has criticised Barbarin for failing to report Preynat to the authorities, even though he was made aware of the allegations against him in 2007.

The diocese did not remove Preynat from ministry until 2015.

Since the Preynat case has come to light, other allegations of sexual abuse by priests in the Lyon diocese have emerged.

Barbarian, one of the highest-profile figures in the French Church, said last month he had "never covered up paedophilia".

Under increasing pressure, he has asked for "forgiveness" for what he called Preynat's "abominable crimes", but insists he did nothing wrong.

It is the worst scandal to hit the Catholic Church in France since a bishop was convicted in 2001 for failing to report abuse.

Another bishop came under attack last week when he refused to describe paedophilia as a "sin".

Stanislas Lalanne, the bishop of Pontoise outside Paris, later tried to clarify his position, saying "paedophilia, in every case, is objectively serious".

Writing in Le Monde newspaper on Tuesday, the archbishop said the Church now had a "better understanding of the depth of the hurt inflicted" by abuse and admitted: "We have not always done a good job of managing the cases in the best way." He wrote: "We must cooperate fully with the judicial authorities and we must listen to the victims in an open and caring way." The Catholic Church has been rocked by sexual abuse scandals in recent years, especially in Ireland, the United States and Mexico.

Pope Francis has said dealing with abuse is vital for the Church's credibility and that perpetrators must face "sanctions".