Court clears French cardinal of shielding alleged pedophile priest

LYON, France – Appeals judges on Thursday, January 31, overturned a French cardinal's conviction for failing to report alleged sex abuse by a priest, in a case that rocked the French Catholic Church.

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, had been given a six-month suspended jail sentence last March for not reporting that a priest in his diocese had allegedly abused dozens of boy scouts in the 1980s and 1990s.

He was found guilty of twice failing to report Bernard Preynat to the police, first in 2010 when the priest admitted to the cardinal that he had a history of abuse, and again in 2014, when one of Preynat's alleged victims told Barbarin about abuse he suffered.

Preynat has been defrocked and is awaiting a ruling on March 16 in his trial on sex abuse charges.

Barbarin, 69, had denied the charges against him but nonetheless offered his resignation to Pope Francis, who refused it pending the outcome of his appeal.

The cardinal, who has stepped back from his duties, is the most senior French priest to be caught up in a global clerical pedophilia scandal, which has seen clergy members hauled before courts from Argentina to Australia.

Barbarin, a staunch conservative who took over as archbishop in Lyon in 2002, has long been accused by victims' groups in Lyon of turning a blind eye to decades of child abuse in his diocese which blighted dozens of lives.

Investigators had initially dropped the case against him in 2016 after concluding that the allegations were either impossible to prove or beyond the statute of limitations.

But a group of victims succeeded in having the probe reopened, which led to Barbarin being tried.

He insisted that he had "never tried to hide, let alone cover up, these horrible facts".

But the trial court ruled that he chose not to tell the authorities of the abuse allegations "in order to preserve the institution to which he belongs".

"This wrong was today righted... Cardinal Barbarin is innocent," one of his lawyers, Jean-Felix Luciani, said after Thursday's ruling by the Lyon Appeals Court. –