Lyon archbishop, cardinal Philippe Barbarin gestures as he arrives in Lyon court to attend his trial, on January 7 2019, Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ AFP/ JEFF PACHOUD
Lyon archbishop, cardinal Philippe Barbarin gestures as he arrives in Lyon court to attend his trial, on January 7 2019, Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ AFP/ JEFF PACHOUD

Lyon — A French court will on Thursday deliver its verdict in the case of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, accused of covering up sexual abuse of minors by one of his priests.

The 68-year-old archbishop and five former aides went on trial in Lyon as the Catholic Church faces abuse scandals in countries including Australia, Brazil, Chile and the US.

Barbarin,  the highest-profile Catholic cleric in France to be caught up in a paedophile scandal, went on trial in January.

“I cannot see what I am guilty of,” he told the court. “I never tried to hide let alone cover up these horrible facts.”

The case broke three years ago and lawyers for nine adult plaintiffs – former boy scouts allegedly abused by priest Bernard Preynat – took legal action.

As the abusive acts were allegedly committed before 1991, prosecutors declined to press charges, citing the statue of limitations.

The trial went ahead only after the accusers went around the prosecutor’s office and insisted on their right to put their case to a court.

Under French law, the court can convict and jail a suspect, regardless of a prosecutor’s position.

Barbarin and his co-defendants denied covering up the scandal. He said he found out the full story about the priest only after the scandal went public.

Preynat, charged with sexual abuse in 2016, is expected to be tried this year. Church leaders first interviewed him in 1991, but Barbarin only suspended him and stopped him from working with children in September 2015.

The alleged victims point to an exchange in 2015 between Barbarin and the Vatican, which advised him to dismiss the offending priest “while avoiding public scandal”.

Their lawyer, Jean Boudot, accused Barbarin of being a liar when he said he learned of the extent of the harm only in 2014.

Barbarin said he confronted Preynat about the abuse “rumours” in 2010 but let the matter drop after Preynat insisted he had changed.

In 2014, after meeting one of the priest’s accusers, Barbarin contacted the Vatican about the affair, and then only removed the priest from his post a few months later.

Two other French religious figures convicted of failing to report child abuse in the past are the archbishop of Bayeux-Lisieux, Pierre Rican, in 2001, and the former bishop of Orleans, Andre Fort, last year.

Pope Francis last month vowed an “all-out battle” to tackle every case of sexual abuse by priests, comparing paedophilia to human sacrifice, but drew an angry response from victims.

AFP