In 2002, this newspaper exposed the widespread and systematic sexual abuse of children by local Catholic priests and the equally systematic cover-up by the diocese’s bishops and cardinals. It was a brutal but vital shock. By illuminating this darkness, the Spotlight team made history and laid the foundations for similar investigations across the globe.
As if to mark the 20th anniversary of this event, a report commissioned by France’s Catholic Church was released to the public this month. The 2,500-page document — the work of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) — revealed that at least 330,000 children had been sexually abused by more than 3,000 ordained and lay clergy in France between 1950 and 2020. The report’s authors emphasized these numbers were a conservative estimate.
The same institutional and ethical fault line, it appears, stretches across the Atlantic, connecting America and France. Yet the ways in which the two nations have taken the measure of these quakes reveal very different approaches.
The Spotlight team’s revelations led the American bishops to commission criminologists at John Jay College to study sexual abuse by clergy across the nation. Their findings, announced in 2004, were troubling: More than 10,000 accusations of child sexual abuse were made against priests between 1950 and 2002. Yet the methodology was also troubling. Not only was the team’s approach strictly quantitative, it was restricted to information the bishops agreed to share. Crucially, the researchers were not given access to internal church documents, a fact they omitted from their report.
In 2016, Bernard Preynat, a priest in Lyon, was found to have sexually abused dozens of French Scouts over the course of three decades. The revelation sparked an outcry that led to pressure on France’s Catholic Church to investigate how widespread the problem of pedophilia in the church might be. The country’s bishops created CIASE two years later.
In contrast to the makeup of the John Jay investigative committee, not a single criminologist is to be found among the members of CIASE. The committee’s president, Jean-Marc Sauvé, is a former Jesuit seminarian who became a prominent civil servant and is best known for his work on human rights. His committee, led by sociologist Philippe Portier, is made up of anthropologists and psychiatrists, professors of constitutional and canon law, theologians, and historians.
This detail in particular — the inclusion of historians — piqued my interest as a scholar of French history, because the role of historians in France has been nearly as influential in the making of the country as that of institutions like the Catholic Church. The novel-like histories of the Romantic historian Jules Michelet, the history-steeped fiction of the Romantic novelist Victor Hugo, and the history primers of Ernest Lavisse — a five-time Nobel Prize nominee in Literature — helped to shape what another Romantic, Charles de Gaulle, called a “certain idea of France.” Namely, a nation whose greatness was no less the work of those who wielded the pen than wielded the sword.
There is another critical difference between the American and French cases: Portier’s team was given full access to the central archives of the French episcopate. They combed through tens of thousands of documents that researchers had been forbidden to consult until a letter from Pope Francis urging their unsealing was heeded. Thanks to those documents, what they discovered, in Portier’s words, was a “grim landscape,” the grimness of which is compounded by Portier’s reminder that even the church’s own records of its secret, shameful history do not convey the true extent of the crimes committed against children.
Statistics that criminologists would unearth could never convey the reality of the horror. For this reason, the CIASE report instead does what historians do: It tells a story. The committee members made history by writing a history, one that lights up this darkness in a way the John Jay account failed to do. This is because the abuse survivors help tell the story. Whereas the voices of the abused are absent from the John Jay report, the Sauvé report amplifies them. As Sauvé has affirmed in public comments about the report, the words of these men, women, and children form “the report’s template.”
The commission’s approach was exemplary. Seeking the testimony of documented survivors, the commission received more than 6,000 responses and interviewed 250 of those who chose to speak. In the final report, the commission members confessed their shock. “The accounts are horrifying and needed time to be absorbed.” Of the 75 written accounts reproduced in the report, some strain for objectivity, others insist on subjectivity; most are cast in prose, but a few are written as poetry. One poem’s refrain runs “I was 5 and you were 50 years old.”
Crucially, the French episcopate, unlike its American counterpart, appears candid in its desire for a full accounting. It not only commissioned the report but also opened the archives to researchers. Moreover, its public response to the report has been rapid and remarkable. The bishops described the findings as un choc.
The protestation strikes some as false. Until the early 1970s, the report underscores, church authorities pressured civil authorities to ignore such criminal instances.
Yet the French Catholic Church does seem to be taking the full measure — historical and ethical — of these searing revelations. How can it not? In an interview with the Catholic newspaper La Croix, Jean-Marc Sauvé declared that the Church “must recognize its responsibility for the past. Even if it did not know everything, the Church can no longer say that it did not know.”
Sauvé believes the church in France must go beyond paying indemnities to the survivors, while other voices now insist the church end the practice of celibacy and start the practice of ordaining women. In any event, the CIASE report has laid the groundwork for real, lasting change.
Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His new book, “Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague,” will be published in March 2022.