child abuse, abuse
Illustrative image. Image Credit: IANS

Paris: The French Catholic Church will offer a "financial contribution" to the thousands of victims of child sex abuse by priests in the country since the 1950s, bishops agreed on Friday.

The Church wants to "recognise its responsibility to society by asking forgiveness for these crimes and shortcomings," the bishops announced after a four-day gathering in the southern city of Lourdes.

With the vow to make financial amends, the French Church is catching up with similar compensation plans announced in countries such as Belgium, Germany, Ireland and the United States.

The Bishops' Conference of France set up an investigative commission in 2018 after huge and repeated child abuse scandals shook the Catholic Church at home and abroad.

Jean-Marc Sauve, a senior French civil servant who heads the commission, said this month that there might have been at least 10,000 paedophilia victims since 1950, based on calls to a hotline set up for victims and witnesses.

His commission's report is set to published later this year.

Bishops have determined the need to take responsibility "with regards to the past, the present and the future," Monseignor Olivier Leborgne, a vice-president of the Bishops' Conference, said during a video news conference Friday.

He suggested the compensation would be a lump sum financed by a dedicated endowment, initially with five million euros ($5.9 million) with an independent advisory panel set up to study requests, with the first payments likely in 2022.

But the Church said the payments "are neither a compensation nor a reparation", Monsignor Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, the conference's president, told the video conference.

'Complicity'

The payments are meant to help victims "on their road to recovery or healing," Moulins-Beaufort said, for example to help pay for therapy sessions.

A compensation plan had already been approved by the church in 2019, but it was suspended after resistance from congregations as well as victims' associations, which contested the amounts suggested or wanted to wait until the commission issued its findings.

But the diocese of Lyon has nonetheless compensated fourteen victims of Bernard Preynat, a priest who was handed a five-year prison term last year for assaulting around 70 scouts between 1986 and 1991.

French bishops on Friday also agreed to study a memorial to abuse victims, possibly in the Catholic pilgrimage city of Lourdes, home to a shrine to French peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous, to whom Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared several times in 1858.

An annual day of prayer in remembrance of abuse victims will also be decreed in France, as encouraged by the Vatican.

The response from victims' associations was mixed.

"I'm satisfied with these proposals, in particular the Church's recognition of its responsibility concerning the acts against these children: the terms admit both an active and passive complicity," said Olivier Savignac of the Faith and Resilience group.

But Francois Devaux, co-founder of La Parole Libere ("Free to Speak Out"), which represents victims in Lyon, said "it's a mistake not to wait for the commission's recommendations."

"The bishops waited a long time to respond, they could have waited six months more," he said.