Catholic Church sex abuse scandal: the French government's double standards over 'separatism'


For months the French government has continually raised concerns about what it sees as the dangers of “Islamic separatism” in the country and has brought in legislation to tackle it. Yet when in the wake of a major report on child sex abuse in the French Catholic Church a senior bishop suggested that the secrets of the confessional were stronger than the “Republic's laws” there was at first a deafening silence from government ministers. This reluctance to comment came on top of the government's clear embarrassment at the publication of the sex abuse report itself, a document which produced shocking figures on the extent of the scandal in the church. Ellen Salvi reports.

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A senior Catholic bishop in France caused outrage last week when he suggested that the secrets of the confessional carried more weight than the laws of the French Republic. Monseigneur Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the Bishops' Conference of France the Conférence des Évêques de France (CEF), spoke after a shocking report into the level of sexual abuse in the French Catholic Church was published on Tuesday October 5th.

Yet though the bishop's comments provoked a strong reaction among the public, and especially on social media, there was initially a deafening silence from government ministers. Neither interior minister Gérald Darmanin nor the junior minister in charge of citizenship, Marlène Schiappa, who have both introduced new legislation on “Islamic separatism”, uttered a word about the bishop's comments.

This was despite the fact that Éric de Moulins-Beaufort's comments onFrance Info radio on Wednesday October 6th could not have been any starker. When asked about article 434-3 of France's criminal code, which makes it an offence not to report attacks or sexual assaults on a minor, the bishop responded: “We are bound by the secret of the confessional, and that's stronger that the republic's laws.” He then added: “We have to find ways to enable a child to speak out elsewhere, but many children only speak during confession because they know it is secret.”

Monseigneur Éric de Moulins-Beaufort stating that the secret of the confessional is stronger than secular law.

A few members of the ruling La République en Marche (LREM) did timidly raise their voices against the bishop's remarks. “Well no; otherwise we're no longer in a Republic at all,” responded the LREM Member of Parliament Bruno Questel. His fellow MP Anne-Christine Lang also Tweeted: “Is there something stronger that the Republic's laws? Should you stay quiet when you know 'so as not to upset the parents'? Thinking of the hundreds of thousands of children whose lives have been destroyed by paedocriminal priests.”

Yet initially there was not a word of condemnation from the government on the subject. Junior minister Marlène Schiappa, who is usually quick to give her personal views on the principle of secularism, simply offered her support to “everyone who has been a victim of paedocriminals”. She also pointed out that the government had extended the statute of limitations on the reporting of “sex crimes committed against minors” and that it was “still possible to make a complaint”.

When Mediapart contacted the office of interior minister Gérald Darmanin, one of whose areas of responsibility is religion, there was no comment. Instead, officials pointed to comments by anthropologist Laëtitia Atlani-Duault, a member of the commission that reported on child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, who told Le Monde on Tuesday October 5th that the secrets of the confessional “cannot contradict the legal obligation to report sexual violence” against minors.

Finally, on Thursday October 7th, the Ministry of the Interior revealed that Gérald Darmanin is to meet Éric de Moulins-Beaufort early next week “to ask him to explain his comments”. Meanwhile on the same day the French government spokesman Gabriel Attal stated: “Nothing takes precedence over the laws of the republic in our country.”

 © Photo Sébastien Calvet / Mediapart © Photo Sébastien Calvet / Mediapart

Back in July 2021, meanwhile, Monseigneur Éric de Moulins-Beaufort had been appointed a knight of the Légion d'Honneur, an honour bestowed under the patronage of the Ministry of the Interior. When he was an auxiliary bishop in the diocese of Paris from 2008 to 2018, he had kept in post a priest even though the latter's behaviour, the bishop said, posed him a “real problem”. As Mediapart revealed in 2019, the senior cleric had suspected the priest of having an “excessive hold” over and an “unconventional attraction” towards young boys.

The tardy and limited reaction to Monseigneur Éric de Moulins-Beaufort's comments came after a more general silence on the part of the government to the report published on Tuesday October 5th into child sexual abuse in the French Catholic Church. The report by the Commission Indépendante sur les Abus Sexuels dans l’Église (CIASE), led by senior civil servant Jean-March Sauvé, stated that according to research from health and medical research body INSERM and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), some 330,000 minors have been the victims of sexual abuse within the church since 1950, 216,000 of them at the hands of the clergy, the rest from lay members.

I pay tribute to the sense of responsibility of the French Church, which has decided to face up to this issue.

Emmanuel Macron

During a trip to Slovenia last Wednesday Emmanuel Macron did eventually speak in passing about the issue, paying tribute to the work of the CIASE commission and to the “sense of responsibility of the French Church, which has decided to face up to this issue”. He added: “I hope this work can proceed with clarity and calmness. Our society needs it.” This was similar in tone to a statement put out by the junior minister for children and families, Adrien Taquet.

Approached by Mediapart, Élisabeth Moreno, the junior minister for equality, diversity and equal opportunities, spoke of an “historic report”. She said: “The damning figures [in the report] show us the scale of the problem. Fighting against all forms of sexual violence towards minors is a government priority. Their protection has been strengthened since 2017 but there is still progress to be made.”

Yet the issue was not raised during questions to the government at the National Assembly on Tuesday. It was the same story at the Senate the following day. Back in 2018 the socialist group of senators had had their request for an commission of inquiry into the scale of paedocriminality in the church turned down by the right-wing ruling majority in France's upper house. This week the Socialist Party senator Marie-Pierre de La Gontrie said: “The Right in the Senate failed in its responsibility.”

The lack of official condemnation of Éric de Moulins-Beaufort's comments on the secret of the confessional stood in stark contrast to the government's frequent statements in recent months about “Islamic separatism”. A further example of this concern about separatism is a video recently posted by the inter-ministerial group on the prevention of crime and radicalisation, the Comité Interministériel de Prévention de la Délinquance et de la Radicalisation (CIPDR). Its secretary general is prefect Christian Gravel, who is close to Manuel Valls, the former interior minister and then prime minister under President François Hollande.

This video, too, has provoked a lot of reaction, with some people calling it divisive and setting “them against us” in relation to Muslims in France. Yet the Ministry of the Interior – of which the CIPDR is part – has not responded to these criticisms. “How can the Republic's government produce that? Apart from provoking mistrust towards Muslims and making them scapegoats, what purpose does it serve? On the other hand, the tax separatism of the wealthiest is well established, and that seems to me to be something that needs tackling more urgently,” Tweeted the Member of the European Parliament for the green Europe Écologie-Les Verts (EELV) party, David Cormand after watching the video.

In early February, however, while MPs were debating the law on separatism at the National Assembly, interior minister Gérald Darmanin was very clear on the issue of religious separatism. “We can no longer talk with people who refuse to commit to paper that the Republic's law is superior to the law of god,” he told public broadcast radio France Inter, speaking about a new charter on the principles of Islam that Muslim groups were asked to sign up to. And he told the Catholic newspaper La Croix: “Catholics have nothing to fear from laws that defend the Republic.”


  • The original French version of this article can be found here.

English version by Michael Streeter

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