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Culture of Abuse

On the “cruel indifference” of France’s Catholic Church

The French, everybody knows, love a good scandal. Now they’ve got one, however, that should be abhorrent even to them. This week, an investigative group called the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church released a 2,500-page report finding that members of the Catholic Church, including both clergy and lay staff, have abused an estimated 330,000 minors in France since 1950. “The victims,” Jean-Marc Sauvé, the chair of the commission, said, “were not believed, were not listened to. When they were listened to, they were considered to have perhaps contributed to what had happened to them.”​​​​ The Church, he added, had treated the victims with “cruel indifference.”

The Catholic Church has been a cauldron of scandals around the sexual abuse of minors. In Ireland, the United States, and many other countries, alarming cover-ups were an essential part of this story, in which people who could have spoken out, who could have protected the victims, simply did not do the right thing. In France, however, protecting children from pedophilic adults appears to have an aspect of cultural obstinacy that is not present elsewhere. One of the startling findings of the commission is that “while, in absolute and relative terms, these acts of [sexual] violence were in decline up until the early 1990s, they have since stopped decreasing. The Catholic Church is the place where the prevalence of sexual violence is at its highest, other than in family and friend circles.”

Unlike most countries where the Catholic Church has provided cover to pedophiles, France has long resisted the idea of “statutory rape.” Though sex between adults and minors under fifteen was illegal, it was not prosecuted as rape unless there was proof of coercion or force. That is, until the law was changed in April of this year. The history of why it took so long to establish a firm age of consent in France provides insight into how the sexual abuse of minors was getting a covert nod. Take for instance that time in 1977, when a group of philosophers, Michel Foucault among them, wrote an open letter in favor of three Frenchmen who were about to go on trial for having sex with thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girls and boys. The letter, also signed by Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes, among others, described the pre-trial imprisonment of the three men as “scandalous.” It went on to argue that there was a disproportion between the acts in question being qualified as criminal and their nature. Children, the authors argued, were considered fully responsible for their acts at the age of twelve or thirteen, so it made no sense that they could not consent to sex.

Until this April, the issue of whether children can consent remained up for debate in France. Writing in The Atlantic, Marie Doezema recounted a case from 2017 in which a twenty-eight-year-old man had sex with an eleven-year-old girl. When the case went to court, the man was charged only with the vaguely titled “sexual infraction.”  When the consent issue was litigated in court, the defense argued that the girl was capable of giving consent since she was really almost twelve. Thankfully, the court disagreed, ruling that the eleven-year-old girl was not able to provide consent and that rape charges be filed against the defendant even though there was no evidence of coercion.

Then there is the recently published book by Vanessa Springora, the former mistress of celebrated French author Gabriel Matzneff, describing what it was like to be thirteen years old and seduced by a celebrity author more than two decades older than her. For his part, Matzneff has not even attempted to hide his sexual passion for children, saying in 1975, “I think that adolescents, young children, say between age ten and sixteen, are perhaps at the age where their emotional and sexual impulses are strongest, because they are new.” It was not just statements, either; in his work, Matzneff wrote copiously about his “affairs” with minors, particularly in South East Asia.

The French literary elite did not care, however. Despite Matzneff making this and similar statements in public, he continued to be a darling in this milieu. In 2013, Matzneff was awarded the Renaudot Prize despite his penchant for pedophilia. But in 2020, he was at last charged with the promotion of the sexual abuse of children, with a trial set to begin this fall.

Until this April, the issue of whether children can consent remained up for debate in France.

Given this context, it makes sense that the Catholic Church in France would have had a wider berth than in much of Europe or in North America. While Matzneff has been charged, one wonders how much cultural will and moral clarity really exists when it comes to the prosecution of pedophiles and the castigation of pedophilia. Catholic priests are not part of the French cultural establishment, but they are part of the culture itself. If Foucault and Deleuze and Barthes can argue that children can consent even at the of twelve, the Catholic Church can similarly rationalize that while sexual acts were violations of the Church’s teachings, they were not actually crimes. Due to the statute of limitations, many of the pedophile priests cannot be retroactively punished.

The abused boys—and they were mostly boys—were primarily between the ages of ten and thirteen, and there are approximately 2,900 members of the clergy who are implicated. The report has urged the Church to consider allowing priests to marry because the issue of celibacy arguably contributes to priests’ likelihood to sexually abuse the children who come under their influence. For its part, the Catholic Church seems uninterested in doing any such thing. The matter of compensating victims from Church finances has also been distasteful to the church hierarchy: until last year, bishops in the church were suggesting providing victims a “contribution,” with funds raised by churchgoers.

Digging into the details of this new report and the issue of abusive priests in France feels like charting a course through the maze-like catacombs that sit under Paris. The long resistance against a set age of consent appears to substantiate the idea that the French ideal of “seduction” is somehow endangered when legal limits are placed on it. The Matzneff scandal, and now this latest one involving quite literally hundreds of thousands of people, reveals who pays the price. In the desire to give primacy to the possibility of seduction, the French refuse to acknowledge the huge differences in power between a child and a fully developed adult—the latter likely titillated by that sense of their superior power.

This is not the France of Emily in Paris, or even the one fantasized about by middle-aged American women. This is not one of the romanticized stories that the world likes to tell about France and its monopoly on the stylish and the chic. France, too, seems to believe this lie about itself, hiding and ignoring the problem, then boldly arguing that children being forced into having sexual relations with adults are somehow experiencing a seduction. It’s a disgusting thought, but it reveals the dark side of a society that has made sexual liberté its identifying brand. The children, it appears, must also be subsumed under this umbrella, with ten- and eleven-year-old bodies imagined by celebrated authors as equal partners in lovemaking.

Things do not look good for French children who remain within the radius of the Catholic Church. The identification of sexual relations with a child as morally reprehensible should be a black-and-white issue. French culture, on the other hand, insists on demanding space for the grey, where the alchemy of desire (in their view) produces pleasure. In the same way that female genital mutilation is imagined as being endemic to certain cultures, pedophilia, too, must be considered a particular product of French culture and a human rights issue. Indeed, if the world community can get together to denounce FGM with countries like Sweden even permitting genital exams of girls with roots in certain African countries, so too must there be similar attention given to the safety of French children. The only way to make this scourge go away is to force the unwilling and cruel French perpetrators to pay, to take away their “liberté,” which has become cover for cruelty.