The highest-profile Catholic cleric to be embroiled in a paedophile scandal in France has denied in court that he failed to report a priest who abused Scouts in the 1980s and 90s.
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, one of the most prominent Catholic figures in France, is accused with five others of helping to cover up abuse.
The Guardian reports: At the opening of a trial on Monday, Barbarin appeared to pray as the judge read the accusations against the defendants.
“I never sought to hide, much less cover up these horrible acts,” Barbarin told the court in Lyon, reading from a written statement.
Barbarin, 68, an arch-conservative, could face up to three years in prison and a fine of €45,000 (£40,000) if convicted.
Another defendant, Pierre Durieux, the archbishop’s former chief of staff, said the defendants were the subject of a “witchhunt”.
The Catholic church in France has been convulsed in recent years by abuse allegations, which emerged after a global move by victims to come forward with evidence.
The scandal of abuse and its cover-up has erupted in many countries, including the US, Australia, Chile, Ireland and Germany, causing enormous damage to the church’s standing.
Pope Francis has summoned bishops’ representatives from around the world to the Vatican next month for an unprecedented summit to focus on the scandal, which has threatened to engulf his papacy and has made him vulnerable to critics.
Last month, he demanded that priests who abused children turn themselves in “to human justice and prepare for divine justice”. He vowed that the church would “never again” cover up abuse – although he has been accused of “covering for” a former archbishop accused of abuse and of failing to grasp the severity of the issue.
On Monday, Francis described paedophilia as one of the “vilest” crimes. In his annual address to ambassadors to the Holy See, he said: “I cannot refrain from speaking of one of the plagues of our time, which sadly has also involved some members of the clergy.
“The abuse of minors is one of the vilest and most heinous crimes conceivable. Such abuse inexorably sweeps away the best of what human life holds out for innocent children, and causes irreparable and lifelong damage.”
The bishops’ summit was “meant to be a further step in the church’s efforts to shed full light on the facts and to alleviate the wounds caused by such crimes”, he asaid.
Last week, the Vatican confirmed that Gustavo Zanchetta, an Argentinian bishop who has held a senior position at the Holy See since 2017, was under preliminary investigation over sexual abuse claims.
The scandal in Lyon emerged in 2015 when a former Scout went public with allegations that a local priest, Bernard Preynat, had abused him as a child 25 years earlier.
François Devaux, who has since formed a victims’ group, also filed a complaint against Barbarin, the priest’s superior, alleging he had known about the abuse and covered it up.
After six months of investigation and 10 hours of interviews with Barbarin, investigators dropped the case in 2016, saying the allegations against him were either too old or impossible to prove.
But a group of victims succeeded in having the case reopened which led to Barbarin and others, including the archbishop of Auch and the bishop of Nevers in France, having to stand trial.
The victims’ group, La Parole Libérée (Freed Speech), began with a handful of people but soon received calls and testimony from 85 people claiming to have been victims of Preynat in Lyon.
After he was first denounced in 1991, the priest was prevented from leading Scout groups, but was later allowed to teach children and held positions of authority in parishes until the scandal became public in 2015.
Preynat has acknowledged abusing boys and is to be tried later this year.
The head of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Spanish archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, has also been accused of complicity in the alleged cover-up in Lyon.
In correspondence with Barbarin about the priest, the Vatican’s No 3 advised the cardinal to take “necessary disciplinary measures while avoiding public scandal”.
The Vatican has cited his immunity from prosecution and he will not go on trial.
Written By: Harriet Sherwood, and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report