French Abuse Case Raised Fears about Professional Secrecy

Would Hinder Church's Reform Effort, Some Say

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PARIS, NOV. 12, 2002 (Zenit.org).- When France faced a clerical sex-abuse case last year, the clash between civil and ecclesiastical authorities also raised concerns about professional secrecy.



On Sept. 4, 2001, a French court sentenced Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux-Lisieux to a three-month suspended prison term for not reporting a priest of his diocese who had committed acts of pedophilia.

The prelate's attorney, Thierry Massis, told ZENIT that the sentence implied "a curtailing of the area of professional secrecy," between a priest and his bishop. It was the first time that a bishop was sentenced by the country's judiciary since the French Revolution.

Bishop Pican was accused of not reporting Father René Bissey's acts of pedophilia to the judiciary, acts that the priest told the bishop in private, but not in the confessional. The priest was sentenced to 18 years in prison in October 2000 by the High Court of Calvados.

Bishop Pican acknowledged during the trial that he was mistaken when evaluating the priest's acts, as he did not think they were so grave.

In December 1996, when the bishop learned about the accusations, "the priest was on the verge of suicide," he said. Because of this, he thought that rather than reporting him to the police, it was more important to offer him help, removing him from the parish and having him admitted to a clinic.

In fact, from the moment the bishop was aware of the priest's case, Father Bissey did not commit such acts again, attorney Massis said.

Following the conviction, Cardinal Louis-Marie Billé, at that time the president of the French bishops' conference, publicly defended the realm of professional secrecy, which, he believed was being threatened by the country's judiciary.

"When an ecclesiastical judge knows that his notes and conclusions can be shown with impunity before a criminal jurisdiction, he will lose the necessary freedom of action. He will find an obstacle. And it is precisely freedom of worship that is under discussion," the cardinal said, when he addressed the Conference's Plenary Assembly, held at Lourdes last November. The cardinal died last March.

Cardinal Billé also denounced the police's search, without prior warning, of the archives of the ecclesiastical tribunal of Lyon, where he was archbishop.

"By deliberately denying the professional secrecy of the ministers of worship, the judiciary will impede the Church from assuming its own responsibilities and collaborating in the search for the truth," Cardinal Billé had observed.