Pope Francis has rejected the resignation of French cardinal Philippe Barbarin who was handed a six-month suspended jail sentence this month for failing to report sex abuse by a priest under his authority, prompting surprise among Church leaders and condemnation from victims.
The pope’s decision, announced by Barbarin in a statement and confirmed by the Vatican, comes ahead of a judicial appeal of the case.
But it also comes against the background of the Roman Catholic Church’s struggle to restore trust in its efforts to fight child abuse, with the pope saying last month that “no abuse must ever be covered up, as has happened in the past”.
In a statement issued from his see in the French southeastern city of Lyon, Barbarin said: “Monday morning, I handed over my mission to the Holy Father. He spoke of the presumption of innocence and did not accept this resignation.”
Barbarin, the most senior French cleric caught up in the global pedophilia scandal, said he would remain in Lyon pending the court appeal, but added that “for a little while” he would step back from his job, allowing, at the pope’s “suggestion”, the local vicar general Yves Baumgarten to run day-to-day affairs.
“I remain in office but withdraw myself from the running of the diocese,” he told Catholic TV station KTO.
“After this judgement, this condemnation, and even if there had not been this condemnation, I think it is good that a page should be turned,” he added.
The chairman of the Bishops’ Conference of France — which represents top French Catholic clerics — expressed surprise at the decision which creates an “unheard of” situation.
“I did not expect this scenario which falls between the two outcomes that we expected,” bishop Georges Pontier told AFP.
This “unheard of” situation results from the difficulty of “respecting the judicial process” along with the need to “look after the Lyon diocese”.
On March 7, a Lyon court had ruled that Barbarin, a cardinal since 2003, was guilty of failing to report allegations of abuse of boy scouts committed by a priest, Bernard Preynat, in the 1980s and 1990s.
Barbarin’s lawyer said he would appeal the guilty ruling which was hailed by abuse victims as ushering in a new period of accountability in the French Church.
The pope, who met 68-year-old Barbarin on Monday, had previously also defended him, saying in 2016 that his resignation before a trial would be “an error, imprudent”.
Victims of the sex abuse at the heart of the case Tuesday reacted with anger to news that Barbarin was staying put.
‘A mistake too many’
Francois Devaux, a co-founder of a victims’ organization, said the pope has made “one mistake too many”.
“I think that man (the pope) is going to manage to kill off the church. It’s a mistake too many. It just shows how right we are and how this whole problem is part of the dogma,” he added.
Another member of the victims’ association, Pierre-Emmanuel Germain-Thill, termed the pope’s decision “shocking”, stressing that the initial condemnation by a court could not simply be ignored.
“We shall continue to fight,” he said, saying the situation was all the more difficult for the victims as Preynat, the priest at the heart of the abuse scandal, had not yet been judged,
He is expected to be tried later this year.
A slew of abuse scandals tainting the church has spanned the globe, from Australia to Chile and the United States.
Less than a week after Barbarin’s conviction, the Vatican’s former number three, Australian Cardinal George Pell, was sentenced to six years in prison by a Melbourne court for the “brazen” sexual abuse of two choirboys.