The archbishop of Lyon on Thursday announced that he was resigning just hours after being handed a six-month suspended jail sentence for failing to report sex abuse.
Philippe Barbarin, 68, is the most senior French cleric caught up in the global pedophilia scandal that Pope Francis just two weeks ago vowed to fight in an “all-out battle.”
A court in Lyon ruled that Barbarin, a cardinal since 2003, was guilty of failing to report allegations of abuse of boy scouts committed by a priest, Bernard Preynat, in the 1980s and 1990s.
The priest, who was charged in 2016, is expected to be tried this year.
Barbarin, who was not present for the verdict, said he “duly acknowledged the court’s decision,” but his lawyer said it would be appealed.
He is the third senior French cleric to be found guilty of failing to report sex abuse.
Barbarin, an archconservative who took over as archbishop in Lyon in 2002, was dubbed “Mr 100,000 volts” by the press for the dynamism he displayed in his campaigns for persecuted Syrian Christians or against gay marriage.
However, he has long been accused by victims’ groups in Lyon of turning a blind eye to the historic child abuse in his diocese that left dozens of lives blighted.
“I cannot see what I am guilty of,” Barbarin told the court at the start of the trial in January. “I never tried to hide, let alone cover up these horrible facts.”
In its verdict the court found otherwise, saying that the archbishop “in all conscience” chose not to tell authorities of the abuse allegations “to preserve the institution to which he belongs.”
“By wanting to avoid a scandal caused by a priest’s multiple sex offenses, and probably in seeking to conform to inadequate decisions taken by bishops before him, Philippe Barbarin preferred to take the risk that justice would be unable to uncover a great number of victims of sexual abuse and prevent them from voicing their pain,” the verdict said.
Francois Devaux, one of the priest’s alleged 85 victims who now heads a victims’ support group in Lyon, called the verdict a “major victory for child protection.”
“It’s obvious that this verdict will hugely encourage people to speak out,” Devaux said.
However, the archbishop’s resignation comes “too late for the Church,” he said, adding that “the decision should have been taken long ago. And the pope should have taken it.”
“This is a thunderbolt again at a moment when the church has already been knocked out by a storm,” Archbishop of Strasbourg Luc Ravel said.
The suspended nature of the jail sentence means Barbarin will not serve time behind bars.
His defense lawyer, Jean-Felix Luciani, said that “the reasoning of the court is not convincing. We will contest this decision by all the means possible.”
He also suggested that it had been difficult for the court “to resist pressure” from public opinion, which has long been debating the case.
An award-winning feature film by director Francois Ozon about the case has already hit theaters despite complaints from the priest that it could prejudice his defense.
Five former aides who were also on trial alongside Barbarin were all found not guilty, either because the alleged crimes were too old or unproven.
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