LYON, France (UPDATED) – The archbishop of Lyon, the most senior French cleric caught up in the global peedophilia scandal that has rocked the Catholic church, announced his resignation Thursday, March 7, after being given a six-month suspended jail term for failing to report sex abuse.
A court in Lyon, in southeastern France, had ruled that 68-year-old Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who was not present for the verdict, was guilty of failing to report allegations of abuse of minors committed by a priest in the 1980s and 1990s.
He is the third senior French cleric to be found guilty of failing to report sex abuse.
"I have decided to go to see the Holy Father to hand him my resignation. He will receive me in a few days' time," Barbarin told a news conference after the verdict.
"Independently from my own fate, I wish once again to stress my compassion for the victims," he said.
He was on trial at a time when the Catholic Church has been hit by abuse scandals in countries as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Chile and the United States.
Barbarin "in all conscience" chose not to tell authorities about the abuse allegations "in order to preserve the institution to which he belongs," Thursday's verdict read.
"By wanting to avoid a scandal caused by a priest's multiple sex offenses, and probably in seeking to conform to inadequate decisions taken by bishops before him, Philippe Barbarin preferred to take the risk that justice would be unable to uncover a great number of victims of sexual abuse and prevent them from voicing their pain," it added.
Francois Devaux, who leads a victims' group in Lyon, called the verdict a "major victory for child protection."
"It's a signal, a strong message sent to the French church, to the world and to Pope Francis," he told reporters.
Devaux was one of up to 85 victims of priest Bernard Preynat, who was charged with sexual abuse in 2016 and is expected to be tried this year.
"It's obvious that this verdict will hugely encourage people to speak out," Devaux added.
The suspended nature of the jail sentence means Barbarin will not serve time behind bars, but his defense lawyer immediately announced he would appeal.
"The reasoning of the court is not convincing," Jean-Felix Luciani said. "We will contest this decision by all the means possible."
He also suggested that it had been difficult for the court "to resist pressure" from public opinion which has long been debating the case. A feature film about the case has already hit cinemas.
Five former aides who were also on trial were all found not guilty, either because the alleged crimes were too old or unproven.
Barbarin had faced a maximum 3 years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros ($54,000).
Two other senior French religious figures have been convicted of failing to report child abuse in the past: the archbishop of Bayeux-Lisieux, Pierre Rican, in 2001, and the former bishop of Orleans, Andre Fort, last year.
"I cannot see what I am guilty of," Barbarin had told the court at the start of the trial in January. "I never tried to hide, let alone cover up these horrible facts."
The case broke 3 years ago and lawyers for 9 adult plaintiffs – former boy scouts allegedly abused by Preynat – took legal action.
Preynat was first interviewed by church leaders in 1991 and was prevented from leading scout groups, but he was later allowed to teach children again and held positions of authority.
Barbarin, an arch-conservative who took over as archbishop in Lyon in 2002, only suspended him and stopped him from working with children in September 2015.
The archbishop had said in a newspaper interview he was first made aware of allegations against the priest "in 2007 or 2008."
Since the abuse related to acts committed before 1991, prosecutors declined to press charges because of the statute of limitations and it was the victims who insisted on having a trial.
They accused Barbarin of being aware of the abuse allegations from at least 2010 and then trying to cover up the scandal, under orders from the Vatican, from 2015.