French cardinal found guilty of sex abuse cover-up

PARIS (Reuters) – A French court convicted the Roman Catholic archbishop of Lyon on Thursday of failing to act on allegations of sexual abuse of boy scouts in his diocese, handing Cardinal Philippe Barbarin a six-month suspended jail sentence.

He is the highest-profile cleric to be caught up in the child sex abuse scandal inside the Catholic Church in France.

Barbarin was found guilty of failing between July 2014 and June 2015 to report allegations of abuse in the 1980s and early 1990s by a priest due to go on trial later this year.

Barbarin, who was not in court for the verdict, would contest the decision, his lawyers said. “We’ll see you here in a few months time for an appeal,” defense lawyer Jean-Felix Luciani told reporters outside the courtroom.

Barbarin denied concealing allegations that Father Bernard Preynat abused dozens of boys more than a decade before he arrived in the Lyon diocese in 2002.

Preynat has admitted sexual abuse, according to his lawyer.

Lyon prosecutors had previously investigated Barbarin but dropped the probe in mid-2016 without a detailed explanation. However, an association of alleged victims called Parole Liberee (Freed Word) used a provision of French law to compel the cardinal to stand trial.

“This will send a strong message to the Church and to the pope,” said abuse victim Francois Devaux, applauding the verdict.

Barbarin’s trial put Europe’s senior clergy in the spotlight at a time when Pope Francis is under fire for the church’s response to a sexual abuse crisis that has engulfed the institution and damaged its standing around the globe.

The pontiff last month ended a conference on clergy abuse of children by calling for an “all-out battle” against a crime that should be “erased from the face of the earth”.

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Victims and their advocates expressed deep disappointment, saying Francis had merely repeated old promises and offered few new concrete proposals.

Barbarin told the trial he only became aware of Preynat’s abuses in 2014 after a conversation with one victim. Before that, he said, he had only heard rumors. He removed Preynat from his post a year later, when allegations became public.

The scandal is the subject of Francois Ozon’s film Grace A Dieu (By The Grace Of God) which won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at Berlin’s International Film Festival last month.

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