Bishops in the holy town of Lourdes have prayed on their knees in a penitential gesture to ask god for forgiveness for sexual abuse in the Catholic church.
A month ago an independent commission published findings that detailed around 3,000 predators among the clergy who sexually abused 216,000 minors from 1950 to 2020.
“This morning, we did not ask the victims for forgiveness, this is a matter more for the interpersonal relationship between the bishop and the victim,” Bishop François Touvet of Chalons said on Saturday.
“We cannot ask forgiveness from people who are not yet able to give it.”
The commission’s report found that the “vast majority” of victims were pre-adolescent boys from a variety of social backgrounds.
It described the abuse as a “massive phenomenon” that had been covered up for decades by a “veil of silence”.
On Tuesday France’s 120 Catholic bishops began their annual conference where they will digest the report.
They devoted nearly half their week-long meeting to “the fight against violence and sexual aggression directed at minors”, according to the published agenda.
Some victims were invited to join the meeting, but many declined, denouncing the decision to make the sexual abuse scandal just one of several topics — rather than the sole issue on the agenda.
The gathering is taking place in Lourdes – considered by the Catholic church to be a holy site and one of the world’s top pilgrimage destinations.
Ahead of the conference, the bishops said they would examine the question of the church’s institutional responsibility for the mass abuse, as well as a mechanism to compensate victims.
Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the Bishops’ Conference of France (CEF) which co-requested the report, expressed his “shame and horror” at the findings, while Pope Francis said he felt “great sorrow”.
Jean-Luc Souveton, a priest who was sexually abused, said he would attend both a plenary session and a special session dedicated to the abuses, hoping to make the bishops understand why not more victims had turned up.
“I don’t represent those who are staying away, but I want to make their presence felt, if only to say why they didn’t come,” he told AFP.
In last month’s report, the independent commission recommended that the church accept civil and social responsibility for the abuses, separately from the individual responsibility of the abusers.
It also said that financial compensation should be calculated for each individual case according to the severity of abuses suffered, instead of making flat rate payments.
The money should be taken from the personal assets of the attackers or from the church, it said, recommending against any call for donations from the Catholic faithful.