Pope Francis has called for caution in the “interpretation” of a damning report released in October that found as many as 330,000 children may have been sexually abused by clergy and lay members of the Catholic Church in France.
The pontiff said on Monday that the “historical situation” must be framed in context when conducting studies that explore incidents dating back decades. The inquiry behind the report, the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE), examined allegations of sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic church in France from the 1950s to 2020.
Noting that studies “must be attentive to the interpretation” people will “make of it,” the Pope said that historical abuse must be viewed according to the standards of the time. He gave as an example that the “attitude” of the church to cases of abuse was “to cover it up,” but acknowledged that this was an “attitude that unfortunately still exists today in a large number of families.”
Abuse 100 years ago, 70 years ago, was brutality. But the way it was experienced is not the same as today.
The comments drew backlash from victims’ groups in France, with the founder of one association – La Parole Liberee (Freed Speech) – criticizing the Catholic leader’s “ignorance, stupidity and denial.”
“This will show everyone that the Pope is at the heart of the problem,” Devaux told the AFP news agency. He also expressed disbelief at the pontiff’s “distressing” lack of interest in the inquiry. Francis had on Monday revealed he had yet to read the CIASE report, but said he would discuss it with French bishops during their scheduled visit later this month.
In October, he had expressed “shame” on behalf of himself and the Catholic Church over the scale of sexual abuse revealed by the 2,500-page report. The CIASE had referred to a “veil of silence” within the church that enabled decades of abuse and ensured that victims were “not believed, not heard.” This, it said, allowed “systemic” abuse to continue unchecked for decades.
Over the last 70 years, roughly 216,000 children were found to have been abused by clergy, with the number of victims potentially growing to 330,000 when including incidents by lay representatives of the church. From a total of 115,000 priests and clergy with the church over that time, the evidence showed some 2,900 to 3,200 are being accused of abuse.