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Sex abuse scandal in French Catholic Church
This Mediapart investigation reveals how 25 bishops, five of who are still active, were directly involved in protecting 24 people, mostly priests, accused of sexual
They were among 32 alleged perpetrators of sex crimes who are identified here as having been protected by the Church, and whose alleged victims total 339. The method employed often involved the transfer of the alleged perpetrators, a number of who have now been convicted for sex crimes, to distant geographical locations both in France and abroad.
Revealed: the 25 French bishops who covered up sex crimes
Several dozen priests accused of sexual assaults were knowingly and methodically protected by 25 bishops who were aware of their alleged crimes and who never alerted the judicial authorities to the events, Mediapart can reveal in a year-long investigation into cases of sexual abuse, either alleged or since confirmed, involving members of the French Catholic Church. The Catholic Church turned a blind eye to the cases of more than 300 victims of abuse across France, according to hundreds of documents, including judicial reports, witness accounts, letters and archived press reports gathered in this investigation.
The majority of the perpetrators eventually became the subject of judicial investigations, after which some were sent for trial and convicted, while others among them are currently formally placed under investigation, a legal status one step short of being charged and which implies that there is serious or corroborative evidence they committed an offence. But there are also cases of formal complaints which the French justice system has dismissed on the grounds of the statute of limitations (under which prosecution of an alleged crime is impossible due to the length of time that has passed before a complaint was lodged). We have chosen to cite the cases in this category when evidence we have obtained (judicial documents, confessions, and concordant witness accounts) support the accusations.
This investigation has established that from the 1960s to date, and notably since the year 2000, at least 32 priests and other religious and lay figures accused of sexual crimes against minors and adults were protected by the French Catholic church both in France and abroad. A total of 25 bishops, five of whom are still in activity, were alerted to the evidence of sexual abuse but never lodged formal complaints with the police or judicial authorities. The scandal involves 339 alleged victims.
The French Catholic Church insists that the events are a thing of the past, and numerous bishops have claimed that the Church’s attitude towards sexual abuse allegations changed in the early 2000s. According to that account, the sex abuse cases implicating members of the Church that emerged last year (see here, here, and here) were isolated and old, and covered by the statute of limitations.
Our investigation shows that to be false. Half of the cases of alleged sexual abuse which were covered up by the Church concern incidents that occurred after the year 2000. A total of 28 clerics were transferred to Directeur de la publication : Edwy Plenel www.mediapart.fr 2 2/5 other geographical locations following the disclosure of the alleged abuse, and without the justice system being alerted to the events.
However, the law is very clear on the requirement that anyone who is aware of evidence of such crimes must inform the relevant authorities, and a document prepared by the Conference of Bishops of France (the CEF), the French Catholic Church’s Episcopal assembly, underlines this. First published in 2002, and re-published in 2010 and 2017, the CEF document (see right) warns: “When someone is made aware of a crime (it should be noted that rape is a crime) or precise facts concerning privation, mistreatment or sexual assault on minors of less than 15 years of age, they must inform the justice authorities. In this case, no distinction should be made on the basis of the status of the alleged perpetrator. That they be a priest, a lay tutor or a member of the victim’s family, denunciation is imperative. Articles 434#1 and 434#3 of the penal code provide for a punishment of three years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros for the non-denunciation of such acts.”
Of the 32 alleged perpetrators identified in this investigation, 24 were directly covered up by a total of 25 bishops. The other cases were covered up by superiors, priests and others who were alerted to the events and who took no action. None of the prelates were ever prosecuted for non-denunciation bar one, Pierre Pican, who is today bishop emeritus of BayeuxLisieux, and who was in 2001 handed a three-year suspended prison sentence for “non-denunciation of sexual assault”.
Of the 25 bishops involved in hiding the cases, five are still active. They are Philippe Barbarin, cardinal and archbishop of Lyon; archbishop of Besançon JeanLuc Bouilleret; the bishop of Bayonne, Marc Aillet; the bishop of Le Mans, Yves Le Saux, and Bernard Fellay, a bishop who heads the Catholic traditionalist Society of Saint-Pius X.
Since he was appointed archbishop of Lyon in 2002, Barbarin was made aware of sexual abuse allegations against five priests, but took no steps to alert the judicial authorities. Evidence of the abuse was provided by families, in detailed correspondence, and in some cases by the confessions of the priests themselves. Despite Barbarin’s inaction, two of the priests were subsequently prosecuted and convicted, two have been placed under investigation while the results of a canonical enquiry into the case of the fifth have been passed on to the justice authorities.
Jean-Luc Bouilleret, now archbishop of Besançon, was head of the diocese of Amiens in northern France when, during the mid-2000s, he was informed, by three priests and the family of the alleged victim, of a case of sexual assault by priest Stéphane Gotoghian. “In the course of my ministry in Amiens, I held a meeting with a family who told me this: ‘something happened between our son and such-andsuch a priest’”, Bouilleret told Mediapart. The related incident was sufficiently serious for Bouilleret to urge the family to lodge a formal complaint with the authorities, but which they did not do. Bouilleret said that he sought the advice of the Amiens public prosecutor, and “orally indicated every element” he was aware of to the prosecutor’s office. He gave no written account of the allegations, nor did he launch an internal enquiry.
The public prosecutor’s office took no action, apparently for lack of evidence. Meanwhile, Father Gotoghian escaped a suspension from his duties, although he was barred from activities with teenage children. In 2014, he was convicted of five sexual assaults of underage boys between 2002 and 2012, and sentenced to three years in prison (18 months suspended).
In Bayonne, south-west France, a priest who was the subject of several allegations of sexual crimes was protected by the Church for more than 25 years. As Directeur de la publication : Edwy Plenel www.mediapart.fr 3 3/5 of his appointment as bishop of Bayonne in 2009, Marc Aillet was made aware of the accusations of paedophile acts by Father Jean-Francois Sarramagnan, both by the family of one of his alleged victims and in a confession from the priest himself. The bishop only alerted the justice authorities seven years later, in 2016, when a flood of revelations of paedophile cases involving the French Catholic Church was reported in the media.
In Le Mans, north-west France, Bishop Yves Le Saux received a letter in 2010 from the family of an alleged victim of sexual abuse committed by priest Max de Guibert, who Le Saux allowed to continue to work with groups of minors. “I only knew of the case as of my arrival,” Le Saux told Mediapart in an interview last November. “Already, before me, he was removed from his ministry.” Le Saux said the family who wrote to him had not wanted to lodge a formal complaint with the authorities.
It was not until 2015 that the priest was formally placed under investigation by the justice authorities on suspicion of committing rape and sexual assaults against minors between 1993 and 2007, which he has denied. Our investigation has also learnt that Bernard Fellay, the bishop who heads the Catholic traditionalist Society of Saint-Pius X, was informed of allegations of sexual abuse committed by two of the fraternity’s priests, but never alerted the authorities to the fact. One of the cases involved Father Philippe Peignot, who remained in contact with youngsters for many years, notably scouts. The other case involved Father Christophe Roisnel who, after the sexual abuse allegations emerged, was transferred to a monastery in Burgundy. In 2014, he was formally placed under investigation by the justice authorities for rape, torture and barbarous acts against adult victims.
This investigation has found compelling evidence that, beginning in the 1960s, at least 339 people were the victims of confirmed or alleged sexual abuse by priests and other representatives of the French Catholic Church, and 288 of the victims were aged under 15 at the time of the events. The cases of just 165 victims led to a judicial investigation after preliminary enquiries by the police. Most of the other cases were dismissed on the grounds of the statute of limitations.
Regarding the perpetrators of the crimes covered up by the Church, the most shocking cases in terms of the number of victims of any one individual were that of Father Bernard Preynat in Lyon, south-east France, (72 alleged victims) and Father Pierre-Étienne Albert in Rodez, south-west France, (58 alleged victims).
The victims identified in our investigation include those who were adults at the time of the events. The denunciation of sexual abuse of adults is required by French law only in particular circumstances. But in several cases of abuse against adults, our investigation has found clear evidence of negligence on the part of the Church, notably when the vulnerable victims were reluctant to lodge a formal complaint with the authorities against the perpetrator, such as in the case of priest Tony Anatrella in Paris, or when the victim informed only representatives of the Church, as in the case of Father Philippe de Morand in Lyon. In that latter example, the father of the priest’s victim had alerted Philippe Barbarin, cardinal and archbishop of Lyon, about the events.
Contrary to regular claims by the French Catholic Church that the cases of sexual abuse date from decades past, half of those cited in this investigation, and who were given protection by the Church, committed their crimes, alleged or confirmed, after the year 2000.
These include the case of priest Michel Chidaine, who was sentenced in January 2017 by a court in Clermant-Ferrand, central France, to five years in prison, three suspended, for paedophile crimes committed between 2008 and 2010 while on mission in the Central African Republic. Another is the case of Stéphane Gotoghian, a priest sentenced in 2014 to three years in prison, 18 months suspended, for five sexual assaults of minors in Amiens, northern France, between 2002 and 2012. Before these cases came to trial, three archbishops – Hippolyte Simon, archbishop emeritus of Clermant-Ferrand, Jacques Noyer, archbishop emeritus of Amiens, and Jean-Luc Directeur de la publication : Edwy Plenel www.mediapart.fr 4 4/5 Bouilleret, formerly archbishop of Amiens and now archbishop of Besançon – were separately informed of the priests’ crimes but took no action.
Of the 32 identified here as accused of sexual abuse, 28 were transferred to other geographical locations after their immediate hierarchy – bishops and others – were made aware of the accusations against them, but failed to alert the police or justice authorities to the situation.
The mode of operation varies little from one diocese to another; as soon as the first complaints emerge, the priest suspected of sexual abuse is given “sabbatical leave”, and then posted to another region, more often in a rural area, or another diocese.
Among those transferred from urban to rural areas within the same diocese is priest Bernard Preynat, who was moved from a suburb in the city of Lyon to the region surrounding the town of Roanne in central France. Among those moved from one diocese to another is priest Jean Bréheret, who was transferred from the town of Angers, in north-west France, to Saint-Flour, a small commune about 500 kilometres away in the Cantal region of central France.
There were also the cases of accuses priests who were sent to work abroad, or conversely who were brought back to France from the overseas missions where the alleged offences took place, such as priest Régis Peillon who was brought back to France from Ivory Coast where, according to his own confession, he sexually abused several minors. Last year he was given a one-year suspended jail sentence for sexually abusing a minor and an adult following his return to France in 2008.
This investigation charts other similar cases (see graphic above) of transfers abroad, and from abroad, of clerics suspected of sexual crimes. These include: a priest transferred from Guinea-Conakry, a former French colony in West Africa where he allegedly committed rape and other sexual offences on minors, to the Sacré-Cœur community in central France; a Lyon priest sent on missionary work in Africa; an oblate moved from Belgium to Lourdes in southwest France; a monk transferred from central France to Romania and a priest moved from Tours in west-central France to Bologna in Italy. By moving the clerics from one country to another, they were distanced from the potential judicial consequences of their acts, and even also, in certain cases, from problems with the higher ecclesiastic authorities.
In the dioceses, the task is not as easy as it is for the more autonomous religious communities and missionary orders. “The advantage of the communities is that they have access to international networks, to places in Africa or in Asia, which allows them to recycle clerics,” said Dutch theologian and journalist Hendro Munsterman.
The method is tried and tested and has been in place for centuries. “It corresponds with what was already practiced in medieval times,” commented Arnaud Fossier, professor in medieval history at the University of Burgundy. “They were made to serve penitence. They were sent on their way to Rome on sorts of pilgrimages. They would see the pope or his judges and confess. The confessor would pardon them and they would be reintegrated under him. They were displaced in order to avoid the scandal of being reintegrated in the same parish. The procedure was not entirely recorded, but as of the 13th century there were letters kept which were given to those who served penitence by their pilgrimage to Rome and which declared the end of [their] suspension.”
————————- • This investigation is also the subject of a book published this week in France entitled Église, la mécanique du silence (The Church, a Mechanism of Silence).
————————- • The French version of this article can be found here.
Pope caught up in Argentine paedophile priest scandal
In 2010 when he was still Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis commissioned a report that sought to exonerate a prominent priest who had been convicted of paedophilia. Now for the first time an Argentine judge has told Mediapart and TV documentary Cash Investigation that a direct attempt was made by the church to influence his views ahead of the priest’s appeal hearing. Martin Boudot, Daphné Gastaldi, Mathieu Martinière, Mathieu Périsse and Antton Rouget report.
Officially, the Catholic Church has adopted a “zero tolerance” attitude towards child abuse. Under pressure following a number of high-profile paedophile affairs, including scandals involving French clergy, the Vatican has insisted that it takes an uncompromising stance on the subject. However, according to a joint investigation by Mediapart and French television documentary programme Cash Investigation, several senior figures in the Catholic Church have knowingly covered up or defended priests accused of acts of child abuse. Some of these cases directly affect the Vatican itself.
Indeed, the claims reach up as high as Pope Francis himself. For when the Argentine-born head of the Catholic Church was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and president of the Argentine Episcopal Conference, he actively took part in a lobbying operation aimed at defending a well-known priest in his country, Father Grassi, who in 2009 was given a 15-year jail term for assaulting two children.
That judicial verdict caused huge shockwaves in Argentina because Julio Grassi had been a star in his native land. He was modern, media-friendly and very influential and over the years his relationships with people at the highest national levels in the worlds of politics, economics and culture had turned him into a major figure. A clever speaker, Father Grassi came across as a benevolent priest as he did the tour of the country’s television talent shows, presented his own radio programme and backed charity missions, seeking to represent the very embodiment of a virtuous Church.
Then in 2002, after several allegations had been nipped in the bud, the well-known investigative television programme Telenoche Investiga managed to unearth the shameful practices of this priestly role model: Julio Grassi was openly linked with assaults on minors at the Felices Los Niños (‘Happy Children’) Foundation which he had set up in 1993.
The central plank of the investigative report was the story of ‘Gabriel’, who had been raped at the age of 15. His testimony provoked the biggest paedophile scandal the Argentine church has known. Even today the young man lives as a recluse in the suburbs of Buenos Aires through fear of reprisals. ‘I have received threats, there’s proof,” he told Mediapart’s colleagues at Cash Investigation. “Some people broke into my home, broke my door. They stole some personal items but also some documents what could have been of use to me during the Grassi trial. In the end the justice system was forced to take action for my safety: I was placed in a witness protection scheme before the trial,” he says.
The violence of the judicial battle also deeply affected ‘Gabriel’. From the start of the scandal Julio Grassi hired the best lawyers, around 20 in total, who adopted a very aggressive defence strategy. The priest was also able to count on the unflagging support of his church hierarchy. “The attitude of the Pope since 2002, when he was a cardinal, until today helped facilitate Grassi’s impunity,” says Juan Pablo Gallego, a lawyer for the victims. “If Bergoglio [editor’s note, the Pope’s real surname] agreed with the Church’s doctrine, already in place under Benedict XVI [editor’s note, Pope from 2005 to 2013], Grassi would have been jettisoned a long time ago, reduced to the laity and no longer allowed to be part of the Catholic Church’.
But the Church was not merely a passive onlooker, allowing Father Grassi to remain in the Church despite the allegations. In 2010, after the priest’s first conviction, the Argentine church went as far as to commission a counter report aimed at exonerating the priest. Written by Marcelo Sancinetti, a renowned legal expert who teaches criminal law at the University of Buenos Aires, the report entitled ‘Studies on the Grssi case’ was commissioned by the Argentine Episcopal Conference. And that body’s president at the time was Cardinal Bergoglio, who in 2013 became South America’s first pope, taking the name of Pope Francis. The 2,600-page report sought to show that the complainants had lied and even went so far as to raise question marks over the victims’ sexuality. For example, an entire chapter was devoted to highlighting “irrefutable information” about the life of one of the complainants, with a view of questioning his heterosexuality. The document argued in just one direction and came to one conclusion: that the justice system had made a mistake and Julio Grassio should be acquitted on appeal.
The Argentine press has already mentioned the existence of this document commissioned by the Pope. But what is less well-known is that far from being simply an internal document, the report was a lobbying tool which was sent to judges handling the case on the very eve of the appeal hearing. The report was also edited on three occasions, in 2010, 2011 and 2013, dates which correspond to the different appeals lodged by the paedophile priest at various courts.
‘Subtle pressure on the judges’
Carlos Mahiques, who dealt with the Grassi case, was one of the judges who was sent a copy of the document. He spoke for the first time on camera about this to Cash Investigation. “This is a legal analysis that is biased in certain cases, very biased in others. It’s clearly in favour of Father Grassi,” said this respected judge, who now sits on his country’s Court of Appeal having briefly served as justice minister for Buenos Aires province in 2016. He says that he only read the document “after having given my verdict” to ensure he was not influenced in his judgement. But the intent was there. “What they wanted to do was exercise subtle pressure over the judges,” says the judge.The question arises as to whether Cardinal Bergoglio – now the Pope – was behind the sending of the report to judges. If he was not, could he have remained unaware of the fact that the document that he had commissioned had the objective of influencing judges? For the moment the answer is unclear. Despite dozens of requests for interviews over nine months, the Vatican has refused to reply to Mediapart. ‘Gabriel’ says: “I recall the phrase that Father Grassi repeate at the trial: ‘Bergoglio has never dropped me.’ Today Bergoglio has become Pope Francis. He’s never denied Grassi’s comments,” notes the young man.
There was also a curious meeting that took place in September 2013. Just before the Grassi case went back before the Supreme Court in Buenos Aires, the newlyinstalled Pope Francis invited that court’s president, Héctor Negri, to visit Rome. At the time the judge – who has also not responded to requests for a comment – swore that the visit was “uniquely for spiritual reasons” and had no link with the case involving the former star priest Father Grassi.
The Grassi affair is symptomatic of the confusion that surrounds Pope Francis on such issues. Since he was elected, the Pontiff has increased the number of commissions and tough declarations when it comes to the fight against paedophilia. In February 2016, while flying from Mexico to Rome, and at the height of the scandal involving the French cleric Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the Pope declared that a “bishop who changes the parish of a priest who he knows is a paedophile is reckless, and the best thing he can do is to offer his resignation”.
In June 2016 Pope Francis issued amotu proprio or edict and announced the creation of a new tribunal to try bishops; it meant that bishops who were negligent in respect of child abuse in their diocese could be removed. Yet though welcomed, victims’ groups say such measures are insufficient and they have accused the Vatican of indulging in hand waving. Back in 2015 the American association for victims of priests, SNAP, had told the church: “It’s time to stop pretending your weak, vague and unenforceable internal church abuse policies, protocols and procedures make any real difference.”
In February 2016 the initiative by Pope Francis had already hit a first obstacle. Peter Saunders, one of only two victims on the commission on child abuse set up by the Pope, was “dismissed” from that body. “A number of members of the commission expressed their concern that I don’t toe the line when it comes to keeping my mouth shut,” Saunders said shortly afterwards. In an earlier interview he had said: ‘I was told that Rome was not built in a day, but the problem is that it takes seconds to rape a child.”
Peter Saunders has highlighted the indulgence of Rome towards two senior bishops: the Vatican’s financial chief and cardinal George Pell from Australia, who has faced allegations of covering up abuse more than a decade ago, and the Chilean bishop Juan de la Cruz Barros, who has been accused of accused of covering up the sexual abuse of children in his country. In May 2015, Pope Francis had signalled his support for Barros. In a video recorded in Rome he is heard telling senior Chilean clerical officials: “Think with the head, don’t be led around by the nose by these leftists who are the ones who put this [opposition] together,” the Pope is heard saying.
A year later, in May 2016, the Pontiff said in an interview with the French Catholic newspaper La Croix that for France’s Cardinal Barbarin – facing accusations he had not reported alleged abuse by a priest to the authorities – to resign would be “an error”. This statement angered the Lyon-based victims’ association La Parole Libérée, who are themselves still waiting to be granted an audience with the Pope.
Two years after he was first nominated to be on the Pope’s commission, Peter Saunders is bitter about his experience and agreed to talk to Mediapart. He said that when he was invited to join the commission he thought that the Catholic Church was serious when it came to protecting children and that things were going to change quickly. “I was wrong,” he says.”A commission with people from all over the world who meet up just twice a year, that’s not taking the issue seriously,” he says. Saunders believes that the real “priority” of the Church appears to be protecting senior clerics.
In March this year the Vatican suffered a further setback in its attempts to tackle the issue of child abuse when the last remaining victim on the commission, Marie Collins from Ireland, decided to step down. Collins, the victim of a paedophile priest when she was a teenager, blamed a continuing “lack of cooperation” on the part of the Vatican and in particular from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body that defends the Church’s doctrine and values and which is responsible for punishing paedophile priests across the world. In the firing line is the CDF’s current prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who is facing growing criticism in the corridors of the Vatican.
Even inside the Holy See, officials frequently point to the CDF’s lack of cooperation. “I asked how many cases they had, how many they had passed sentence on and in which dioceses … they told me they had the statistics but didn’t want to pass them to me,” says an official involved in child protection for the Vatican. “It’s true they have a certain culture of secrecy in judicial procedures, whatever they are,” says Bishop Antoine Hérouard, director of the French Seminary in Rome and secretary-general of the Conference of Bishops in France from 2007 to 2014. “For the ‘Fight Against Paedophilia’ brochure in 2010 I wanted to put in certain figures and I had a lot of trouble gathering them.”
In an open letter to the head of the CDF, published in the National Catholic Reporter earlier this month, Marie Collins regrets the way that the plan for the CDF to have an internal tribunal to try bishops allegedly negligent over child abuse issues has now been dropped. “It was a project you say, only a project?” she asks Cardinal Müller. Collins recalls how in 2015 the Pope had called for the “establishment of a new Judicial Section in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” and for the appointment of a “Secretary to assist the Prefect with the Tribunal”. Four years after his election, the Pope’s promises when it comes to the fight against paedophilia are still running into solid opposition from some of the most resistant forces in the Vatican.
————————————————– • The French version of this article can be found here.
The hidden sex abuse cases at a FrancoSwiss Catholic priest fraternity
A Mediapart investigation carried out in partnership with Swedish television station SVT1 and British newspaper The Guardian reveals how a fundamentalist Catholic society covered up several cases of priests accused of sexual assaults. The Society of Saint Pius X also regularly sends offenders to a discreet ‘gilded prison’ tucked away in the French Alps. Mathieu Martiniere, Mathieu Périsse, Daphné Gastaldi and Ali Fegan report.
“Go, go, you’ve got no right to be here. It’s private property!” In front of the camera, Father Philippe Peignot unceremoniously pushes the journalist. The team from Uppdrag granskning,an investigative programme from Swedish television station SVT1, had been looking for the fundamentalist priest for months. On this particular Sunday, November 20th, 2016, the journalists had found him holding mass, surrounded by choir boys in white lace surplices, in a chapel at Espiet near Bordeaux in south-west France.
At the end of the ceremony the journalist Ali Fegan and his team tried to approach the abbot. Why was he still officiating around young people when he was accused of paedophile acts? Father Peignot lost his temper, and hit out at the “propaganda” campaign against him. The tension was palpable. Someone tried to seize the camera. Zealous parishioners, loyal to the priest, decided to detain the foreign journalists for close to two hours, enough time for their car tyres to be punctured and for the gendarmes to be called.
Once they had arrived the officers freed the journalists but forced the cameraman to erase the film they had taken. It was only thanks to the presence of another camera that the images were saved.This video shows once again the impunity that applies in the case of Father Peignot. This priest is one of 32 cases recorded during this investigation in which the activities of aggressors have been covered up by their hierarchy amid the ‘universe of silence’ that reigns in sections of the Catholic Church. The priest, who is now part of a breakaway movement, had for many years belonged to the Society of Saint Pius X. Its leader, Swiss bishop Bernard Fellay, is among 25 Catholic bishops who have over the years failed to inform the authorities about accusations of sexual abuse concerning their clergy or officials.
Several scandals have raised question marks, in particular, over the code of silence that exists inside the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). For more than 30 years this society of fundamentalist priests has grown on the margins of the Catholic Church. Founded in Switzerland in 1970 in reaction to the opening up advocated by the Second Vatican Council, this fraternity has been in a state of schism with Rome since 1988. It was in that year that its founder, French Catholic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, ordained four bishops without the permission of Rome, leading to their excommunication.
Inside this traditional society, which is now on its way to a reconciliation with the Vatican, discretion is the order of the day. Despite his confessions in relation to events that took place at the end of the 1980s, the abbot Father Philippe Peignot was the subject of just one, belated, sentence under canon law. In 2014 the Society of Saint Pius X, of which he was still a member at the time, in fact banned him from exercising any ministry close to young people. In response the priest joined the dissident movement known as the ‘Resistance, which was also informed of the prohibitions to apply in relation to the priest. These bans were clearly not greatly respected.
When contacted by Mediapart, the Society of Saint Pius X pointed out that Father Peignot is no longer a member. “It’s certainly scandalous that this priest can continue to exercise a normal ministry, if that is the case. Father Peignot’s current superiors who have given him this ministry were, however, warned by us,” says Father Christophe Thouvenot, an abbot and the society’s secretary general.
However, well before Father Peignot’s recent departure from the Society of Saint Pius X, indeed from as early as 1991, successive superiors at the fraternity were informed about assaults carried out by him on at least three boys in Belgium and France at the end of the 1980s. But they never informed the judicial authorities. The society contented itself with moving the priest between France and Belgium. It took until 2009 before an internal procedure was triggered.
Father Thouvenot springs to the defence of the society’s actions – or inactions. “In the 1980s, and although it might be more than regrettable, both Rome and our society of apostolic life lacked defined canonical procedure and no protocol was in place to face up to such situations.” Nonetheless, in 2000 Bishop Fellay, who has been the society’s ‘superior general’ since 1994, and who was aware of Father Peignot’s dangerous nature, broke an initial measure that forbade the priest from exercising any ministry that was close to young people. “Rather than speaking of a ‘broken measure’ it would conform better with reality to speak of an ‘adjusted’ measure, confining this priest to the role of a simple chaplain, with no involvement with children,” says Father Thouvenot. But these measures were not respected by Father Peignot himself. According to a victim who has carried out their own investigation, the priest continued to work closely with a Scout group at Conflans-SainteHonorine to the north-west of Paris until 2002.
It was only in 2009 that Bishop Fellay brought up the idea of a possible psychiatric monitoring of Father Peignot. This was not enough for one of his victims who decided to lodge a formal complaint with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the custodians of the Vatican’s morals and standards. A trial under canon law took place in 2010 at which Father Peignot was convicted at first instance. In 2014 the final verdict was delivered and confirmed by the CDF: the priest was banned from all work that involved contact with minors.
Unaware of the ongoing canon law procedure a victim, whom for these purposes Mediapart will call ‘André’, sought to make a formal complaint to the French justice system in 2012, having realised that Father Peignot had spent a long time working with young people. When questioned in 2012 the priest admitted to some assaults on minors. But the case was not proceeded with. At the end of 2016 the same victim made a new attempt that proved more fruitful. His formal complaint made at Roche-sur-Yon in western France for attempted rape and sexual assault on a minor of 15 led to the opening of a formal judicial investigation. This was more than 20 years after the first warnings about the priest.
‘The gilded prison’
Though his own experiences go back 30 years, André has forgotten nothing. “It spurs me on every day,” he says. “I want him to face justice. I find it hard to believe that he calmly spent nine years with the Scouts without leaving other victims.” Now, after numerous procedures, he can at last take legal action. “I’m relieved. This trial is going to be an ordeal but it’s a first step and I certainly intend to prove his guilt,” says André in a determined voice. “What’s shocking is to see the carelessness towards victims, who have been ridden roughshod over, and the negligence in relation to the risk of re-offending,” says André’s lawyer, Nelly Souron-Laporte. “The superiors knew that it wasn’t an isolated case, there were other victims. They were happy to move him. He was banned from working with young people for a while but he was quickly reinstated. I don’t see how one couldn’t be shocked.”
But according to Mediapart’s information, the mechanics of maintaining the silence that operates inside the Society of Saint Pius X was even more elaborate than has been outlined. Father Peignot was not simply moved between France and Belgium, he was also offered a place of penitence. The offer came in the summer of 2014 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had handed down its final verdict and the priest was banned from any ministry that involved contact with children. The Society of Saint Pius X decided to send the priest to Maison NotreDame, a house in the mountains at Montgardin near Gap in south-east France. But Abbot Peignot dug his heels in and refused this “house arrest”. His superior Bernard Fellay did not give up. In an internal letter, seen by Mediapart, the society’s secretary general said Bishop Fellay had spelt out to Abbot Peignot that “refusal to accept his place of residence as set out in the judgement would put in jeopardy his membership of our society”.
But what is this “place of residence” which forces a priest convicted of sexual assaults on minors to carry out penitence in the French Southern Alps, far from public gaze? Officially, the residence at Montgardin is a “house of rest” dedicated to contemplation, prayer and study. “The Society of Saint Pius X’s first house of this type in the world!” Abbot Jean-Luc Radier, Prior of Marseille, happily told the Dauphiné Libérénewspaperwhen the fraternity bought the property in 2011. The fraternity had carried out a discreet and “unheralded” move to the area, according to the newspaper at the time. Indeed, it was so discreet that not even the Bishop of Gap had been informed of it.
In reality, the Maison Notre-Dame at Montgardin is not a house of rest like any other. Inside the Society of Saint Pius X itself it is even referred to as a “gilded prison”. A source close to the fraternity says: “It’s a place of ‘penitence’, which among others takes in sexual predators.” André, the victim of Father Peignot, says: “Montgardin is in all likelihood a private prison.”
Our Swedish colleagues at SVT1, who visited the house in this isolated village in the Hautes-Alpes département or county, were able to confirm these statements. The Montgardin home seems to serve as a place of retreat for all priests in the society with a problem, sexual or not. That is the case with Father M., a French priest brought back from Australia for “immature” behaviour with children, in the words of the society’s hierarchy itself. Contacted by telephone, Father M. confirmed that he had been at Montgardin “from 2013 to 2015”. This was several years after those in charge at the society, aware of his behaviour towards children, had moved the priest from Australia to Ireland, then to France once more. “We go where our superiors tell us to go. You know, that’s how the Society works,” said Father M.
The role of the house at Montgardin was also confirmed by the fraternity’s secretary general, Christophe Thouvenot. “Some priests are sent there in penitence. It’s a common thing in the Church,” he writes. Without batting an eyelid he then refers to one of the figureheads of French nationalism, the writer Maurice Barrès. “If you’ve read La Colline Inspirée (‘The Sacred Hill’) by Barrès, you’ll remember that Directeur de la publication : Edwy Plenel www.mediapart.fr 4 4/5 the story starts in a monastery, where two priests are staying follow a disciplinary measure imposed by their bishop.”
The case of another priest confirms the punitive nature of Notre-Dame house at Montgardin. In 2013 a French priest Father P. was formally encouraged to go to the Alpine residence after deep disagreements with the society’s superiors. Like Father Peignot, he refused to give way. In an official letter addressed to him, and seen by SVT1, the Society of Saint Pius X’s superior Bernard Fellay gave him an ultimatum. “Upon pain of dismissal from the priestly fraternity Saint Pius X” Father P. had to go to Montgardin “within 48 hours” and to “refrain from any new act of rebellion against the Society of Saint Pius X’s authorities”. The message is clear: go to Montgardin’s “gilded prison” or face definitive expulsion from the fraternity.
However, a new way out exists for those in the Society who do not want to conform and get sent to Montgardin: the rebel movement mentioned earlier called “Resistance”. So those who choose not to head for Montgardin often join this dissident fraternity group, which was set up in 2012 by British Catholic bishop Richard Wiliamson. He is best-known for having been convicted by a German court in 2009 for Holocaust denial. That is the route that Father Peignot took and also Father P., the abbot who was in “rebellion against the authorities”. According to Mediapart’s colleagues at SVT1, the same path was also trodden by a British priest Father S., who was accused in 2006 of sexual abuse in France, and then moved to the United Kingdom by his superiors in the Society of Saint Pius X. When contacted by the Swedish TV station Bishop Fellay insisted he had reported the facts of the case to the criminal court authorities at Mulhouse in eastern France, though he did not provide documentation to the Swedish journalists. However, when contacted by Mediapart the court clerk in Mulhouse stated that their records contained no report form, investigation or judgement relating to acts of a sexual nature concerning Father S. Removed from Britain, Father S. joined Resistance in 2014 in order to to make a clean break with his past at the Saint Pius X fraternity. According to the association AVREF, which helps victims of religious movements in Europe, the dissident group now has around a hundred priests across the world. According to The Guardian newspaper in Britain Richard Williamson’s disciples are apparently even more radical and more conservative than the members of the Society of Saint Pius X.
As for the clerics who have been accused of sexual abuse against minors, such as Father Peignot and Father S., several photographs in Mediapart’s possession show that they continue to celebrate mass to this day, sometimes in contact with children, in France and the United Kingdom and with complete impunity.