Victims of French church abuse receive reparations and recognition

PARIS — PARIS (AP) — “I came back to life.”

Like other victims of child abuse by priests, Stéphane, 52, said the French Catholic Church’s official acknowledgment of what happened will help him finally feel better.

Stéphane is among 201 victims for whom the church has received financial or other reparations as part of a process launched last year by an independent French organization in a nationwide effort to address widespread abuses that have been hidden for decades. Hundreds of others are waiting for their cases to be reviewed.

Reparation may also include non-financial support. Requests included helping the victims write down their stories, organizing meetings with local church representatives, or placing a memorial plaque in memory of the victims. The head of the Independent National Recognition and Reparations Authority (INIRR) also supports the demand to change the name of the plaza named after the archbishop who actively covered up sexual abuse.

Stéphane said that he was raped by a priest when he was 13 years old. Three years later, she tried to report her abuser, but the church “closed the door” and her mother did not believe her.

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He remained silent for years, with serious trauma that affected his entire life. “I felt dead,” he said.

Stéphane — the Associated Press typically does not fully identify victims of sexual abuse — began speaking out again in 2019 when he was able to meet with an archbishop who quickly acknowledged the abuse. And last year, she visited the INIRR, which for the first time allowed her to “feel welcome, heard and acknowledged” as a victim. He described the process as “liberation”.

The French Catholic bishops’ conference agreed to make reparations after a 2021 report estimated that some 330,000 children were sexually abused over 70 years by priests or other church members in France. The estimates were based on wider research on child sexual abuse by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research.

The report described a “systematic” cover-up of church officials and called on the French Catholic Church to respect the rule of law in France.

Laure de Balincourt works as a “reference person” with INIRR, listening to victims’ stories and giving them advice. The role of the clerk is also to contact the archbishop in the region where the sexual abuse took place to help corroborate the testimonies.

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Balincourt explained how, for example, he accompanied a male victim who wanted to read a letter at his abuser’s grave in front of his family and the local archbishop.

“I saw in his physical appearance that the shame left him and I went back to the grave,” he recalled with emotion.

Since the establishment of the board, more than 1,180 victims of priests or other church representatives have applied for compensation, said Marie Derain de Vaucresson, head of the INIRR. He said 32% were women and 68% were men. 404 of them are now receiving support from the INIRR, while most are waiting for their case to be investigated.

The majority of those who contacted the INIRR reported “very serious” crimes, he emphasized, adding that 60% of those receiving financial compensation had been raped once or more. In 58% of cases, the abuse continued for more than a year. They happened in schools, in the abuser’s home, in catechism classes, at youth organizations and in other situations, the INIRR says in its report.

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Derain de Vaucresson said that 80% of the amounts awarded so far exceed 20,000 euros ($21,128), including 40 people who received the maximum amount of 60,000 euros ($63,386). After the INIRR approves the financial compensation, each case is sent to a special fund financed by the Church for payment.

Many of those who reported abuse to the INIRR felt unable to speak about it for decades, until now.

Florence, 74, said she was sexually abused by a priest between the ages of 12 and 17, but kept it to herself for almost 60 years. The priest, a close friend of his parents, came into his bedroom at night when he was invited to his family home, he recalled.

He contacted the INIRR last year. The process helped him “get out of the chaos,” he said. He previously described: “You’re in a dark fog, you don’t really understand what happened.”

Florence received financial compensation, but also received support to receive family mediation in efforts to rebuild relationships with her daughters, who she says were heavily affected by what she experienced.