Sexual Abuse Revelations Accelerate Sense 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 Roman Catholicism’s global hierarchy, France cemented its position as far back as the fifth century, when it became known as the “eldest daughter of the church.”

While Catholicism has ebbed across the Western world, its unrelenting decline in France is all the more striking given its past prominence. Now, a devastating church-ordered report on sexual abuse by the clergy released this week, after a similar reckoning elsewhere, was yet another degradation, further shaking what was once a pillar of French culture and society.

The report, which confirmed stories of abuse that have emerged over the years, shocked the nation with details of its magnitude, involving more than 200,000 minors over the past seven decades. It reverberated loudly in a country that has already been transformed, in recent generations, by the fall of Catholicism, and deepened the feeling of a French church in accelerating retreat.

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

“Marginalization in numbers, because of decreasing observance rates, and marginalization in the political sphere’s esteem for the church as an institution,” said Father Stalla-Bourdillon, who was once a chaplain for French lawmakers.

Because it failed to stop sexual abuse in its midst, he said, the church “is not only marginalized but also discredited.”

Bishop François Jacolin leading a mass in Luçon, France, in March, after a ceremony to unveil a memorial plaque to the victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.Credit…Loic Venance/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Globally, France’s Catholic Church has been weakened further than its counterparts, especially in Germany and the United States. For some Catholics — who, in their lifetimes, have experienced the rapid shrinking of their faith in society and in their own families — the report added to a sense of siege.

“It’s perceived somewhat as an attack,” Roselyne Delcourt, 80, said after evening mass on Wednesday at Notre-Dame de Grâce of Passy, a parish in the 16th Arrondissement of Paris, a wealthy, conservative bastion. “But I don’t think it’s going to harm the church.”

But another parishioner, Dominique Dary, 66, said that the report was a chance for change.

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

If some may seize the report as an opportunity for reform, they could be drowned out by French Catholics who have become increasingly conservative politically and culturally, said Raphaël Liogier, a French sociologist who teaches at Sciences Po Aix-en-Provence and a former director of the Observatory of the Religious, a research center.

Living in a society where Christian religiosity has decreased even as Islam has grown, conservative French Catholics are a powerful political force and vocal actors in the culture wars roiling the country, he said.

“This report risks provoking a backlash among those who have a very strong Catholic identity that this has gone too far,” Mr. Liogier said. “They might perceive it as a plot by progressives to weaken the Catholic Church and to 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-overdue corrective to decades of denial.

A woman praying outside a church in Paris. In villages across France, the church often stands in the most prominent spot.Credit…Ian Langsdon/EPA, via Shutterstock

François Devaux, a co-founder of a victims’ association, asked whether “the church, after all of its betrayals, is capable of reform.”

“Can we allow ourselves to trust them, once again, despite their opacity, so that they do everything they need to do to rehabilitate all of these broken lives?” he said.

The historic power of the church can be grasped immediately by visitors of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris or of any French village, where the local church stands in the most prominent spot. The church continued to challenge the state long after the French Republic was born in a revolt against the Church and the monarchy.

But its influence has waned steadily in the past century and accelerated since the early 1960s, when 96 percent of French people declared that they were baptized Catholics, according to this week’s report.

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

Today, according its own statistics, the church celebrates half as many baptisms as two decades ago, and 40 percent of the marriages.

The number of priests in France has declined, but not the number of foreign ones, who are often called from abroad to fill the ranks of a declining priesthood — in a reversal of the colonial era during which the country was the biggest exporter of priests to Africa.

Successive governments curbed the church’s reach by pushing it out of schooling and other social functions it had traditionally performed. For decades, public schools were even closed on Thursdays to let students attend Bible study, according to this week’s report.

Céline Béraud, a sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, noted that according to the report, over half of the estimated abuse by clergy members occurred from 1940 to 1969.

A pilgrim during a procession in July for the Virgin Mary outside Notre Dame de Lourdes church. Some reports have found that in 2018, only 32 percent of French people identified as Catholic.Credit…Matthieu Rondel/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“That’s the period when there were still tens of thousands of priests, when the younger generations were baptized, went to Bible school or were scouts,” said Ms. Béraud, who has

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