French Prime Minister Jean Castex met Pope Francis at the Vatican on Monday as the French Catholic Church battles a storm over clerical child sex abuse and the sanctity of confession.
The long-planned trip to Rome, which includes talks with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, follows the publication of a devastating report estimating that French Catholic clergy had abused 216,000 children since 1950.
Francis, who has made battling the global scourge of clerical abuse a priority of his papacy, expressed “my shame, our shame” at the findings, echoing a similar sentiment from French church leaders.
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But a row broke out when Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, the head of the Bishops’ Conference of France, said priests were not obliged to report sexual abuse if they heard about it during the Catholic ritual of confession, used to admit to sins.
Moulins-Beaufort’s words were in line with Vatican guidelines updated last year, which call on clerics to report claims of abuse.
But they say confession is subject to “the strictest bond of the sacramental seal”, while adding the confessor should try to convince the penitent to tell someone else.
Yet in France, victims’ advocates pointed out that French law recognises professional confidentiality for priests, but it does not apply in potentially criminal cases involving violence or sexual assault against minors.
After his meeting at the Vatican, Castex told reporters that the pope had said the French church had been “courageous” in dealing with the issue.
“He trusts the Church in France to draw conclusions. He is pleased there has been no denial,” the premier said.
“The Church will not go back on the dogma of the secret of the confession. But we must at all costs finds ways and means to reconcile this with criminal law, the rights of victims,” Castex added.
“He is fully aware of this. It’s a long-term job.”
Moulins-Beaufort was called to a meeting with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, and later insisted that protecting children was “an absolute priority”.
Darmanin accompanied Castex and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to the Vatican, in the visit marking 100 years since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between France and the Holy See.