France’s top Catholic official, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, has been convicted for his role in a sex abuse cover-up, receiving a six-month suspended jail term and will offer to resign.
The archbishop of Lyon, who was not in court, was found guilty on Thursday of failing to report the abuse of a minor by the Reverend Bernard Preynat between 2014 and 2015. Five other defendants were acquitted either because the alleged crimes were too old or unproven.
Barbarin, 68, is the most senior French official to be caught up in the global paedophilia scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church.
The suspended nature of the jail term means he will not serve time behind bars. His lawyers announced immediately that they would appeal the judgment.
“The reasoning of the court is not convincing,” lawyer Jean-Felix Luciani told reporters. “We will contest this decision by all the means possible.”
Magistrates wrote in the decision that Barbarin “had the obligation to report” accusations because the alleged victims didn’t request the ecclesiastic secrecy.
In the wake of the conviction, Barbarin announced he would be presenting his resignation to Pope Francis in the coming days.
“I have decided to go and see the Holy Father to offer him my resignation,” he said. He said Pope Francis “will see me in a few days,” and expressed his “compassion” for the alleged victims.
He also said the victims and their families were in his prayers.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Lyon, said the case has damaged the reputation of the Catholic Church in France.
“It is an institution in crisis. Over the years, there are less and less followers. Fewer priests are ordained and in fact the figures have really plunged over the past decade. It used to be about 800 new priests a year, now there are less than a hundred,” she said.
Barbarin faced long-standing allegations from victims’ groups that he failed to report a priest under his authority to police after learning of abuse which took place in the 1980s and ’90s.
But prosecutors said those crimes were beyond the statute of limitations – meaning they were too old to prosecute – and declined to press charges.
During the trial, victims accused Barbarin of being aware of the abuse allegations from at least 2010 and then trying to cover up the scandal, under orders from the Vatican, from 2015.
Francois Devaux, who leads the victims’ group La Parole Liberee (Liberated Word) in Lyon, called Thursday’s verdict a “major victory for child protection”.
The Catholic Church has been roiled in recent years by claims against priests which have come to light in the wake of a global move by victims to go public with evidence.
Clerics have been denounced in countries as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Chile, Ireland, and the United States, leading Pope Francis to promise to rid the church of a scourge that has done enormous damage to its standing.