Some 216,000 children – mostly boys – have been sexually abused by clergy in the French Catholic Church since 1950, a damning new inquiry has found.
The head of the inquiry said there were at least 2,900-3,200 abusers, and accused the Church of showing a “cruel indifference towards the victims”.
Pope Francis “felt pain” on hearing about the inquiry’s finding, a Vatican statement said.
One of those abused said it was time the Church reassessed its actions.
François Devaux, who is also the founder of the victims’ association La Parole Libérée (Freed speech), said there had been a “betrayal of trust, betrayal of morale, betrayal of children”.
The inquiry found the number of children abused in France could rise to 330,000, when taking into account abuses committed by lay members of the Church, such as teachers at Catholic schools.
For Mr Devaux it marked a turning point in France’s history: “You have finally given institutional recognition to victims of all the Church’s responsibility – something that bishops and the Pope have not yet been prepared to do.”
According to the Vatican statement, the Pope learnt about the report after he met visiting French bishops in the last few days.
“His first thoughts are for the victims, with a deep sadness for their wounds and gratitude for their courage in coming forward,” it read.
“His thoughts also turn to the Church in France, and that, in recognising these terrible events and united by the suffering of the Lord for his most vulnerable children, it can take the path of redemption.”
The report’s release follows a number of abuse claims and prosecutions against Catholic Church officials worldwide.
The independent inquiry was commissioned by the French Catholic Church in 2018. It spent more than two-and-a-half years combing through court, police and Church records and speaking to victims and witnesses.
Most cases assessed by the inquiry are thought to be too old to prosecute under French law.
‘Victims were not believed’
The report, which is nearly 2,500 pages long, said the “vast majority” of victims were boys, many of them aged between 10 and 13.
It said the Church had not only failed to prevent abuse but had also failed to report it, at times knowingly putting children in contact with predators.
“There was a whole bunch of negligence, of deficiency, of silence, an institutional cover-up,” the head of the inquiry, Jean-Marc Sauvé, told reporters on Tuesday.
He said that until the early 2000s, the Church had shown “deep, total and even cruel indifference” towards victims.
“The victims are not believed, are not listened to. When they are listened to, they are considered to have perhaps contributed to what they had happen to them,” he explained.
He added that sexual abuse within the Catholic Church continued to be a problem.
While the commission found evidence of as many as 3,200 abusers – out of a total of 115,000 priests and other clerics – it said this was probably an underestimation.
“The Catholic Church is, after the circle of family and friends, the environment that has the highest prevalence of sexual violence,” the report said.
Olivier Savignac, head of victims association Parler et Revivre (Speak out and Live again), was abused at the age of 13 by the director of a Catholic holiday camp in the south of France.
He told the Associated Press news agency that before the abuse, he had thought of the priest as “someone who was good, a caring person who would not harm me”.
“We keep this, it’s like a growing cyst, it’s like gangrene inside the victim’s body and the victim’s psyche,” he said.
The inquiry found that about 60% of the men and women who were abused had gone on to “encounter major problems in their emotional or sexual lives”.