French Catholics raise voices, demand measures to prevent further clergy sex abuse

This story appears in the Abuse of sisters feature series. View the full series.

How could this happen? This question is the most common reaction in France after a well-documented public television program showed that many nuns had been sexually abused by priests for more than 20 years in France. Not only did the nuns not talk about it for years, but people who knew did nothing to denounce the predators.

The outrage sparked by the program "Abused Sisters: The Other Scandal of the Church" on the Franco-German public television channel ARTE, which aired in early March, has led many French Catholics to raise their voices to call for new measures to make sure these crimes do not happen again.

In Paris, several parishes organized evenings of discussion and prayer, inviting attendees to express their pain and doubts at a time when the church is criticized by the media. For example, about 50 parishioners of Notre Dame de l'Arche d'Alliance in Paris' 15th arrondissement met March 25 to discuss the situation, vent their anger and disappointment, ask questions and pray together.

Catholic magazine Pèlerin chose the headline: "Let's Mend the Church."

An online forum named "Conférence des Baptisé-e-s Francophones" launched a petition to grant women a bigger say in church affairs and got 5,000 signatures in three weeks.

Religious women are determined to take part in pressing for change. Sr. Véronique Margron, the head of the Conférence des Religieux et Religieuses de France or CORREF (the conference of religious men and women in France), is at the forefront of this fight against abuse.

"We knew there were abuses of power by some priests and mother superiors, but we did not know the extent of these crimes," said Margron, who added it was not possible to estimate the number of female victims, since many do not want to talk about it.

Retreats, conferences, meditations and homilies given in parishes during Lent often mention abuse by priests of children or sisters and the crimes of those who manipulate people under their authority in the name of God. As Easter approaches, the faithful are being invited to pray for a renewed church and for the victims.

"Do not believe that priests and bishops alone can change the church. Laypeople like you have to take part in this renewal," Margron said to a packed audience April 10 in Sainte Clotilde church in Paris. 

The scandal is coming after revelations about priests abusing Boy Scouts in Lyon during the recent trial of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who was accused of covering up these acts, which took place before he was the head of the diocese. Barbarin was given a suspended sentenced, which he appealed. The outcome of the appeal will take a few months, and in the meantime, he has stepped aside from his position in Lyon.

Catholics, including those who play an active role in their parishes, say they wonder about the relationship between sisters and members of the clergy.

"What kind of obedience is this?" said Béatrice Bert, a church secretary.

One victim, Sr. Michele-France Pesneau, a member of the Contemplative Sisters of St. John, provided the answer on television and in several radio interviews: "The two priests who sexually abused me had managed to make me believe they were representatives of God with me. One said he wanted to make me feel the love of Jesus for me, the other wanted to share with me the graces that Jesus and Mary exchanged."

"How could I have accepted this? How could have I been in the hold of these persons?" she said. "I felt like a fly in a spider's web. I was a prisoner. I had lost my freedom."

One of the men she says abused her, Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe, was the founder of the congregation of the Contemplative Sisters of St. John in 1982, where many alleged abuses were committed and not reported until 2009. He and his brother, Thomas Philippe, also a priest, are accused of having sexual relations with several nuns for more than 20 years. Both priests are now dead.

Because he was a "guru" and had great charisma, nobody complained about Philippe's behavior, Pesneau said.

"At the time, I did not use the word 'rape' because these priests did not have to use physical violence. I saw this as a penance," she said. She said she did not get pregnant because it was mainly oral sex.

Traditionally, religious make a triple vow: poverty, chastity and obedience. What does obedience mean when a priest asks for sexual favors?

"When religious people take the vow of obedience, it means that they want their life to be a gift of their own self to serve others, with others, according to the Gospel, in a community recognized by the Catholic Church," said Christiane Hourticq, a former superior of the Society of Helpers (Soeurs Auxiliatrices des âmes du Purgatoire, a congregation founded in France in 1856), who now teaches and preaches at retreats.

"Accepting obedience means never deciding alone where you live, what your mission is," she told GSR. There is always a dialogue: "When a sister expresses hopes or wishes or fears, she is not refusing obedience. The superior decides, but only after a real discussion, which benefits both parties."

When a sister is forced to perform acts she knows are morally wrong to obey a priest, she is acting under constraint, she is not obeying, Hourticq said.

In 2018, the General Secretariat of the Conference of French Bishops published a booklet analyzing cult-type situations in the church.

"In a context of manipulation, obedience, which should rather be called 'submission,' is shown as a major virtue in an absolute way," Sr. Chantal-Marie Sorlin, a former canon lawyer at the Catholic Tribunal in Dijon and a member of the committee on cult-type abuses in Catholic communities, wrote in her contribution to the booklet.

Many abuses took place in communities created in the wake of the Second Vatican Council that included families and religious people. Laypeople, priests and religious women and men were sometimes granted a lot of freedom, which meant abuses could happen more easily.

"It so happens that in some groups, the founder or superior takes the place of Christ: Its members have a veneration for him, put him on a pedestal and pledge total obedience, or rather total submission," Sorlin wrote.

These groups become self-sufficient and a sort of "parallel church," she explained. Outsiders are not welcome. Training, retreats, confessions are always done by members of this community. "Training is based on the founder's word, not on the Scriptures." Abuses were not only sexual. Often, abuse of power and spiritual abuse were common in these communities, which were cut off from the outside world and the Catholic Church itself.

The Community of St. John is one of these "communautés nouvelles" founded in 1975. It includes three branches: the Brothers of St. John; the Apostolic Sisters of St. John, founded in 1982, and the Contemplative Sisters of St. John, founded in 1982, where most abuse took place. There are also oblates and laypeople, married and single.

Accusations of abuse in the contemplative congregation were revealed in the press in 2009. The congregation, which was under the authority of Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, was dissolved in 2013, after the majority of the sisters refused to obey the new mother superior Barbarin appointed.

Pope Francis even referred to these abuses recently without mentioning the community by name. Vatican officials later acknowledged he was referring to St. John.

Marie-Laure Janssens, a former Contemplative Sister of St. John, wrote her story in a book published in 2017, le Silence de la Vierge (The Virgin's Silence). She describes this isolation, the total lack of communication, even among members of the community, and the "spiritual abuse" she suffered.

It took her a long time to realize that through exhaustion, tough living conditions and total submission to the prior, she had lost her judgment.

"When I questioned a teaching we were given in class, I was told, 'You are too critical. You play into the hands of the devil.' Submission to God is replaced by a submission to the Mother Superior," she said in an interview with Pèlerin.

After she quit the community at the end of 2009, she decided to tell her story to people who still refused to believe the abuse took place.

"I wanted to be sure that my testimony would not damage the reputation of the church, so I asked our bishop, Mgr. Henri Bricard, his authorization," she said.

But Bricard, who died in 2014, preferred her to keep quiet: "The silence of the church is an act of mercy towards people. Keeping silence doesn't mean being afraid of the truth when this silence is a sign of a gift of oneself, the language of service, as the Virgin Mary made us understand," she quotes him as saying.

Janssens wrote that this reply shocked her. To her, it showed predators can be granted mercy while victims do not get any consideration or attention.

"For years, I had thought that if we wanted the truth to be told, we had to go to the bishops," Janssens writes in her book. "But I know now that the system set up by the Church dilutes responsibilities and only tries to avoid scandal."

"The victims don't want empty words not even an attentive ear. They want clear words. And action: the Church has to cut ties with its members who did these wrongs," she concludes.

"I am convinced things will change now," Hourticq said, pointing out as an example an interview in the daily La Croix with Mgr. Pascal Wintzer, archbishop of Poitiers, that questioned the idea that priests were sacred.

"I think that, like in the oriental churches, married men could be called to be priests, while still having a professional life. Priests and bishops are not sacred persons. We are people who have been called to serve, to fulfill a mission," he said in the interview.

"The possibility that married men could be ordained priests would allow the Eucharist to be celebrated where it is not anymore" because there are fewer priests, he said.

Some religious women go further, calling for the ordination of women, such as Sr. Ruth Schönenberger, a Benedictine prioress in Germany, who said it is time women and men are treated equally in the Catholic Church.

Hourticq said she is not in favor of women's ordination: "It is too early. It would add another crisis to the crisis we have now."

The role of women in the church is at the heart of many debates.

"My word is my only weapon because I am only a woman and, in the church, women do not have any weapon," Pesneau said in the ARTE documentary.

The distrust toward the clergy, the omerta that covered crimes, the loss of credibility of the whole institution and its continuous refusal to give women more responsibilities have led some Catholics to announce on social media that they want to be "de-baptized." This is an impossible act according to canon law.

Others have openly questioned the beatification of Pope John Paul II in light of his awareness of abuse and the fact that he did not do anything to address these crimes. In a recent opinion piece published in the daily Le Monde, Christine Pedotti and Anne Soupa, two theologians who founded Conférence Catholique des Baptisé-e-s Francophones, have called for the "de-canonization" of John Paul II.

Margron, who is often interviewed these days on radio and television, minces no words.

"Yes, the church is guilty for not protecting vulnerable people and for not helping victims more," she said at the recent forum. "Victims have to be at the center of our attention. They have to be helped. Protection of children is an absolute priority. There is no easy solution to change the church. All avenues should be explored."

[Elisabeth Auvillain is a freelance journalist based in Paris.]