Revelations of sexual abuse intensify the spirit of a French church in retreat

Paris – The Catholic Church in France was once so powerful that it was considered a state within a state. In the global hierarchy of Roman Catholicism, France solidified its position in the fifth century, when it became known as the “eldest daughter of the Church”.

While Catholicism has spread throughout the Western world, its continued decline in France is more striking given its previous prominence. Now, a disastrous church-ordered report released this week on sexual abuse by clergy, followed by similar calculations, was another fallacy, once a pillar of French culture and society.

The report, which confirmed the stories of abuse that have surfaced over the years, stunned the nation with details of its magnitude, involving more than 200,000 minors over the past seven decades. This resonated loudly in a country that had, in recent generations, already changed before the collapse of Catholicism, and deepened the spirit of a French Church in accelerating the retreat.

The Rev Laurent Stella-Bourdillon, a priest and theologian in Paris, said the church was still coming to grips with “the extent of gradual marginalization in French society”.

Father Stella-Bourdillon, who was once a chaplain to the French Parliamentarians, said it was “marginalized in numbers, low adherence rates, and the political sphere’s respect for the church as an institution.”

Because it failed to prevent sexual abuse among themselves, he said, the church “is not only marginalized but also discredited.”

Globally, the Catholic Church in France has been more vulnerable than its counterparts, particularly in Germany and the United States. For some Catholics – who have, in their lifetime, experienced a rapid shrinking of their faith in society and their families – the report added to the sense of siege.

“It is somewhat perceived as an attack,” said 80-year-old Rosaline Delcourt on Wednesday after an evening mass event at Notre-Dame de Grace of Passy, ​​a parish in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, a wealthy, Orthodox stronghold. “But I don’t think it’s going to harm the church.”

But another parishioner, 66-year-old Dominic Derry, said the report had a chance for change.

“I hope we can turn the page now and we’ll have a new church,” she said.

If some people can seize the report as an opportunity for reform, they may be overshadowed by French Catholics who have become politically and culturally conservative, said Raphael Liogier, a French sociologist who specializes in Sciences Po Aix-en- teaches in Provence and is a former director of the Religious Observatory, a research center.

Living in a society where Christian religiosity has declined along with the rise of Islam, conservative French Catholics are a powerful political force and vocal actors in the country’s ongoing culture wars, he said.

“This report risks provoking a backlash among those who have a very strong Catholic identity that it has gone too far,” Mr Liogier said. “They may see this as a conspiracy by progressives to undermine the Catholic Church and destroy what remains of French identity.”

For victims of sexual abuse by clergy members, however, the report was a devastating account of their suffering and a long-standing corrective to deny for decades.

François Devaux, co-founder of the Union of Victims, asked whether “the Church, after all its betrayals, has been able to reform.”

“Can we allow us to trust them once again, despite their obscurity, to do everything they need to do to rehabilitate these broken lives?” he said.

The historical power of the church can be immediately understood by visitors to the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris or any French village, where the local church occupies the most prominent position. The Church continued to challenge the state even after the birth of the French Republic in rebellion against the Church and the Monarchy.

But its influence has steadily waned over the past century and has intensified since the early 1960s, when 96 percent of French people declared they were Catholic, reports this week.

Studies using data from the European Values ​​Study found that in 2018 only 32 percent of French people identified as Catholic, with less than 10 percent regularly attending congregations.

Today, according to its own statistics, the church celebrates as many baptisms as it did two decades ago, and 40 percent celebrate marriages.

The number of priests in France declined, but not the number of foreigners, who were often called from abroad to fill the dwindling priestly ranks – in contrast to the colonial era, during which the country was the largest exporter of priests. Africa.

Subsequent governments curtailed church access by removing the church from schooling and other social functions traditionally performed. For decades, public schools were also closed on Thursdays to allow students to participate in Bible studies, reports this week.

Céline Béroud, a sociologist for the Advanced Study in the Social Sciences in Paris, said that according to the report, more than half of the estimated abuse by clergy members occurred from 1940 to 1969.

“This was the time when there were still thousands of priests, when the younger generation was baptized, went to Bible school or scouted,” said Ms. Beroud, who wrote a book on sex abuse scandals in France’s Catholic Church.

While middle-aged French can no longer practice their faith, many have grown up in the church and understand its rituals, Mr Liogier said. Today, many young French neglect basic facts about Catholicism, such as the meaning of Easter, and are unable to transmit that knowledge to the next generation, he said.

Claire-Marie Blanchard, 45, a mother of four who teaches Bible studies, witnessed this firsthand.

“There are children who have never heard of Jesus, even children whose parents are Christians or Catholics,” said Ms Blanchard at the Notre-Dame de la Médelle Miracules Chapel in the Seventh arrondissement of Paris. When she did not baptize her newborn, her own son teased her so that the child could decide later.

“Being Catholic in France is complicated,” she said. “But we’re not giving up.”

Feeling under siege, some practicing Catholics have become increasingly Orthodox. In the 2017 presidential elections, the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, won 38 percent of the vote for practicing Catholics, compared to 34 percent of the total vote.

The decline of Catholicism and the Catholic-centred French identity – in contrast to the growing role in society of Muslim immigrants and especially their French-born children – is a major divisive issue running through French society. In politics, while it promotes Catholic support of candidates on the right, it also manifests itself in unusual ways.

Eric Zemour, the far-right writer and TV star who is heading into the polls ahead of next year’s presidential election, has long attacked Islam and the right-wing by styling himself as a great defender of France’s Catholic culture. has gained popularity – even though he is Jewish and his parents immigrated to France from Algeria.

Isabel de Gaullemin, a top editor at France’s leading Catholic newspaper La Croix, said the church’s decline has made it reluctant to tackle the issue of sexual abuse for fear of adding to its current challenges.

“The development was very brutal,” she said of the church’s decline in power. “So it feels like it’s a fort under siege.”

This sentiment is also fueled by the feeling that the church is poor. Unlike its counterpart in Germany, which is supported by tax collected by the government, the French Church receives no steady stream of subsidies and must rely almost exclusively on donations from worshipers, however, due to France’s complex secularism laws. Under, the state pays for the maintenance. almost all church buildings

Victims of sexual abuse, who expect compensation from the Church, quickly point out that some dioceses own large real estate.

Olivier Savignac, who was sexually abused by a priest as a minor and who founded a union for the victims, said he was “not a small symbolic amount” of years of medical bills covered by churchgoer donations. Wanted compensation for compensation.

“We want the diocese to pay from their own pockets,” he said.

Many say the report has brought the Church to a turning point – the Reformation, or further fading.

“It is now,” said Father Stella-Bourdillon. “not later.”

leontine galois Contributed reporting.

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