French Catholic Church to settle sex abuse claims with asset sales

French Catholic bishops agreed Monday to sell part of the Church’s extensive real estate holdings to compensate the thousands of victims of child sex abuse at the hands of clergy.

Church officials have been under growing pressure to indemnify victims after a landmark inquiry confirmed extensive sexual abuse of minors by priests dating from the 1950s to 2020.

An independent commission will be set up to evaluate the claims, “and we are going to provide the means to accomplish this mission… of individual indemnities for the victims”, said Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, head of the Bishops’ Conference of France (CEF).

His comments came at the close of days of meetings by the conference’s 120 members on how to respond to the devastating inquiry into the “massive phenomenon” of child sexual assault that was often covered by a “veil of secrecy”.

The inquiry had urged the Church to pay victims with its own assets, instead of asking parishioners to donate funds to compensate for crimes committed by the clergy.

The Church had already promised to set up a fund to start making payouts next year, and it will now be bolstered “by selling real estate assets owned by the Bishops’ Conference of France and by dioceses”, Moulins-Beaufort said after the meeting at the Catholic shrine of Lourdes.

He also said that a loan would be sought from banks if needed, and that the Vatican would be asked to send an observer to help examine the French Church’s response.

– ‘Institutional responsibility’ –

The 2,500-page report released last month detailed abuse of 216,000 minors by clergy over the period, a number that climbs to 330,000 when claims against lay members of the Church are included, such as teachers at Catholic schools.

The commission’s president denounced the “systemic character” of efforts to shield clergy from prosecution and issued 45 recommendations of corrective measures.

In particular, the Church was urged to pay reparations even though most cases are well beyond the statutes of limitations.

On Friday, France’s bishops for the first time formally recognised that the Church bore an “institutional responsibility” for the abuse, and senior members of the clergy knelt in prayer Saturday in a show of penance.

But victims’ associations have said words are far from enough, and are demanding compensation that would cost the Church tens of millions of euros (dollars).

– Evaluate all claims –

Hugues de Woillemont, a CEF spokesman, said all claims of compensation would be examined by the new commission, including those dating back decades that are usually beyond statutes of limitation for prosecution.

It will be presided by Marie Derain de Vaucresson, a senior civil servant and legal expert specialising in child welfare.

French bishops also plan new measures to prevent sexual assault and ensure that offending priests are prosecuted, though some could require Vatican approval.

Pope Francis expressed his “shame” after learning of the abuse, which has become one of his biggest worldwide challenges since his election in 2013.

But compensation could be put in place relatively quickly, and the CEF has already promised that the first payments will be made in 2022.

Questions of doctrine still appeared to be a problem last month, when the government summoned the Archbishop of Reims, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort.

He had provoked anger by saying that priests were not obliged to report sexual abuse if they heard about it during an act of confession.

He was later forced to walk back his comments.

Protecting children from sexual abuse is an “absolute priority” for the Catholic Church, said the archbishop after meeting Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin — at the request of President Emmanuel Macron.

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