On March 18, Philippe Cardinal Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, France, met with Pope Francis to hand in his resignation. Word emerged the next day that the pontiff had refused to accept this decision. The news comes after a March 7 verdict that found Barbarin guilty of failing to report accusations of sexual abuse against priest Rev. Bernard Preynat. Barbarin has been given a six-month suspended sentence, but claims he is being unjustly accused. Following the conviction, Barbarin’s lawyers have appealed the court decision.
Preynat ran a Boy Scout group in the 1970s and 80s where he admitted to sexually abusing minors. Reports of his behavior emerged as early as 1991 through an official letter to the cardinal; in response, Rev. Preynat was moved to a different diocese.
In 2002, Barbarin became the archbishop of Lyon. The accusations against him state that he knew about Preynat’s abusive behaviors as early as 2010, yet continued to allow him to serve as a priest in contact with children. Barbarin was found guilty of not reporting accounts of abuse to the police the when he learned of them. In 2015, Barbarin suspended Preynat. One year later, Preynat was charged with abuse and rape. He still awaits a trial.
While Pope Francis rejected Barbarin’s formal resignation, the cardinal claims the pontiff told him to follow the course of action he deemed best for his archdiocese. Barbarin thus chose to step away from his leadership role and allow the vicar general to run the archdiocese. He stated his reasoning was that “the church of Lyon has been suffering for three years.”
On April 1, Pope Francis clarified his decision during his in-flight press conference on a return trip from Morocco. Pope Francis said that “there is a presumption of innocence during the time the cause is open.” He also stated that he wants to avoid the “superficial media condemnation” that has “ruined the lives of some priests who were then judged innocent.”
“Maybe he is not innocent,” Pope Francis added, but he repeatedly emphasized the need for a “presumption of innocence” until the appeal process is over. Therefore, his decision to refuse the resignation may not be final. If the appeal fails and Barbarin’s case is closed, it is possible that Pope Francis will reconsider the resignation.
“When the second tribunal gives its verdict, we’ll see what happens,” Pope Francis said. The date of the appeal is still unknown.
Cardinal Barbarin’s conviction came days before Australian Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to six years in prison for sexually abusing two altar boys. Pell’s sentencing is significant because he is the first bishop and most senior Catholic official to be convicted of sexual abuse. Barbarin’s case is also notable, as it is one of the first cases to punish a bishop for failing to report sexual abuse. Unlike in previous scandals, judicial action is no longer exclusively for abusers. More bishops will be held accountable for covering up abuse as the church attempts to regain credibility.
Featured image courtesy of Peter Potrowl via Wikimedia Commons