Paris (AFP) -
French Catholic clergy sexually abused some 216,000 minors from 1950 to 2020, a 'massive phenomenon' that was covered up for decades by a 'veil of silence', an independent commission said on Tuesday.
The commission's two and a half year investigation was prompted by outrage over abuse claims and prosecutions against Church officials worldwide.
When claims against lay members of the Church such as teachers at Catholic schools are included, the number of child abuse victims climbs to 330,000 over the seven decades.
'These figures are more than worrying, they are damning and in no way can remain without a response,' commission chief Jean-Marc Sauve told a press conference.
'Until the early 2000s, the Catholic Church showed a profound and even cruel indifference towards the victims.'
Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the Bishops' Conference of France (CEF) which co-requested the report, expressed his 'shame and horror' at the findings.
'My wish today is to ask forgiveness from each of you,' he told the news conference.
Sauve denounced the 'systemic character' of efforts to shield clergy from sex abuse claims and urged the Church to pay reparations even though most cases are well beyond the statute of limitations for prosecution.
The report, at nearly 2,500 pages, found that the 'vast majority' of victims were pre-adolescent boys from a variety of social backgrounds.
'The Catholic Church is, after the circle of family and friends, the environment that has the highest prevalence of sexual violence,' the report said.
- 'Deviant system' -
Sauve had already told AFP on Sunday that a 'minimum estimate' of 2,900 to 3,200 clergy members had sexually abused children in the French Church since 1950.
Yet only a handful of cases prompted disciplinary action under canonical law, let alone criminal prosecution.
The commission began its work after Pope Francis vowed to address abuse by priests in May 2019, ordering people aware of cases to report them to Church officials.
In France in particular, the case of Philippe Barbarin, an archbishop initially convicted of not telling police of a priest's abuse of boy scouts, drew outrage after he was acquitted in January 2020.
Francois Devaux, head of a victims' association, condemned a 'deviant system' that required a comprehensive response under a new 'Vatican III' council led by Pope Francis.
'You have finally given an institutional recognition to victims of all the Church's responsibilities, something that bishops and the pope have not yet been prepared to do,' Devaux told the conference Tuesday.
- 'Courage' -
The victim estimates were largely based on a representative study carried out by France's INSERM health and medical research institute.
Sauve and his team of 21 specialists, all unaffiliated with the Church, also interviewed hundreds of people who came forward to recount their histories.
'If the veil of silence covering the acts committed has finally been torn away... we owe it to the courage of these victims,' he wrote.
The commission also had access to police files and Church archives, citing only two cases of refusals by Church institutions to turn over requested documents.
Overall, it found that 2.5 percent of French clergy since 1950 had sexually abused minors, a ratio below the 4.4 to 7 percent uncovered by similar inquiries in other countries.
While that would imply an unusually high number of victims per assailant, 'a sexual predator can in fact have a high number of victims, especially those who attack boys', the report found.
For commission chief Sauve, until his retirement one of France's highest-ranking civil servants, the inquiry hit close to home.
Shortly after accepting the job, he got a letter from a former classmate at his boarding school, recounting abuse at the hands of the priest who gave them both music lessons.
Sauve told Le Monde newspaper last month that his commission discovered that the priest -- who later left the school without warning -- had abused dozens of others.