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A report finds French clergy sexually abused over 300,000 children since 1950

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It has been almost 20 years since The Boston Globe exposed widespread child abuse in the Catholic Church here in the U.S. Since then, the global church has faced sex abuse crises in several countries around the world, but only now are revelations coming to light about what has been happening in France. A new report estimates that some 300,000 children in that country were sexually abused by priests and other church staff over a 70-year period.

David Gibson is the director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, and he joins us now to talk about the fallout and the path forward for the Catholic Church in France. Thank you for being here.

DAVID GIBSON: Good to be here, Rachel. Thank you.

MARTIN: Three-hundred and thirty-thousand victims to be exact, which is hard to comprehend - what else does this report tell us about the scope of this abuse in the French Catholic Church?

GIBSON: Well, it's a shocking number, and it's really continuous with the revelations that have happened in many other countries. Again, as you mentioned, the United States really had the big revelations coming after The Boston Globe report 20 years ago. But since, we've also had Ireland; now we're getting Poland, Germany, Australia several years ago. So it's really very consistent, the findings, in most respects with what's happened elsewhere. One of the things that's interesting is the number of priests - about 3,000 priests out of a little over 100,000 over this time period from 1950 up to the present. That's only about 3% of the French clergy that's been found to have been - have abused children, whereas the level is usually about five or 6% in all these other countries. So that level - the number of clergy abusers may actually be a little bit low.

MARTIN: So - I mean, the percentage of clergy who were doing the abusing may be low, but that means that each of these clergy members had many victims.

GIBSON: Well, the number of victims - and this is a very cloudy aspect of this report. The number of victims is so high. It's so extremely high, and the methodology of the report is extremely opaque when it comes to this. The number of victims is maybe much higher than - I don't know - in the reality. It's hard to characterize it. The number of victims would mean each priest had something like 70 victims, which is beyond the precedents by a factor of 10 or 20. So that still needs to be clarified quite a bit. But all of the other things are really consistent - the gender of victims being about 80% boys, the age of the victims and the - also the timeline. The real peak of this abuse was the 1950s to the 1960s and the '70s. And then it dropped sharply after the 1970s. And that's very consistent with what we've seen in other countries as well.

MARTIN: I still don't understand why this took so long to discover. I mean, you know, the Catholic bishops commissioned this report in France in 2018 is my understanding. That is 16 years after the revelations about the sex abuse crisis here in the U.S. Why didn't this provoke an investigation back then?

GIBSON: That's the great question. Why? How could any - why is any country waiting this long? And it seems - I don't know. I think some countries have different cultures, some more waiting for the media or certain cases to provoke such controversy. But that really is the source of the scandal and the outrage here. It's the cover-up. You know, abuse happens. This has been terrible. But the reason you can have a priest abusing huge numbers of victims is because someone is covering up for them, because they're not being reported. So you know, again, it should have been done years ago. After Boston, you know, there's no reason for any church not to do this.

MARTIN: What happens now going forward? What reforms are people calling for?

GIBSON: They're - and this is happening in many countries. In Germany and Australia, you're getting national assemblies of Catholics who are calling for greater transparency and, above all, greater accountability.

MARTIN: But what form does that take?

GIBSON: It means more lay participation, more transparency, as I say, and really ending a culture of clericalism, which is behind this culture of abuse.

MARTIN: David Gibson of Fordham University, thank you.

GIBSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.