PARIS – An estimated 330,000 children have been victims of sexual abuse within France’s Catholic Church over the past 70 years, according to a major report released on Thursday, France’s first major count with a devastating incident.

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The figure includes abuses committed by some 3,000 pastors and others involved in the church – according to Jean-Marc Sauve, the commission’s chairman that released the report, that Catholic authorities had done “systematically” for decades.

The head of the French Episcopal Conference apologized to the victims. The group is meeting on Tuesday to discuss the next steps.

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The commission urged the Church to take strong action, condemning the “blame” and “silence”. It also called on the French state to help compensate victims, especially in cases that are too old to be tried through the courts.

About 80% of the victims were boys.

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“The consequences are very dire,” Sauve said. “About 60% of men and women who were sexually abused face major problems in their emotional or sex lives.”

The 2,500-page document, prepared by an independent commission, comes as the Catholic Church in France, like other countries, seeks to confront shameful secrets that had long been covered up.

The victims welcomed the long pending report.

Olivier Savignac, head of the victim association “Parlor et rivier” (Speak Out and Live Again), which contributed to the investigation, told the Associated Press that the high proportion of victims per abuse was particularly “for French society, for the Catholic Church.” is dreadful. .”

He criticized the Church for treating such matters as individual anomalies as opposed to mass terror. He described the abuse at the age of 13 by the director of a Catholic holiday camp in the south of France, who was also accused of assaulting several other boys.

“I regarded this priest as someone who was good, a caring person who would not harm me,” Savignac said. “But it was when I found myself half-naked on that bed and he was touching me that I realized something was wrong. … and we keep at it, it’s like a growing chest, it’s suffering It is like gangrene inside the body of the victim and the psyche.”

The commission worked for 2 years, listening to victims and witnesses and studying church, court, police and press archives from the 1950s onwards. A hotline launched at the start of the investigation received 6,500 calls from alleged victims or people who said they knew a victim.

Sauve denounced the church’s attitude until the early 2000s as “a deep, brutal indifference to the victims”.

The report said an estimated 3,000 child abusers – two-thirds of whom were priests – worked in the church during that period. Sauve said the total number of victims included an estimated 216,000 people who were abused by priests and other clerics.

“Sometimes church officials did not condone (sexual abuse) and even exposed children to risk by being exposed to predators,” Sauve said. “We believe … the church has a debt to the victims.”

Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, the president of France’s episcopal conference, said on Tuesday that “we are amazed” at the conclusion of the report.

He told the victims, “I want you all to ask for forgiveness that day, sorry.”

Sauve said 22 alleged offenses that could still be pursued had been referred to prosecutors. More than 40 cases that are too old to stand trial but involve alleged perpetrators who are still alive have been referred to church officials.

The commission issued 45 recommendations on how to prevent abuse. Sauve said these include training priests and other clerics, revising canon law — the legal code the Vatican uses to govern the church — and promoting policies to identify and compensate victims.

The report comes in the aftermath of a scandal involving pastor Bernard Prenot that shook the French Catholic Church. Last year, Preenat was convicted of sexually abusing minors and was given a five-year jail term. He admitted to abusing boys over 75 for decades.

One of Prenat’s victims, François Devaux, head of the suffering group La Parole Libere (“The Liberated Word”), told The Associated Press that “with this report, the French Church is going to the root of this systemic problem for the first time. The disturbed institution must reform itself.”

He said the number of victims identified in the report was “minimal”.

“Some of the victims did not dare to speak up or trust the commission,” he said.

The Prenat case led last year to the resignation of the former Archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who was accused of failing to report abuses to civil authorities when they learned of him in the 2010s. France’s highest court ruled earlier this year that Barbarian did not cover the case.

The French archbishop, in a message to parishioners read during Sunday Mass across the country, said the publication of the report was “a test of the truth and a difficult and grim moment.”

“We will obtain and study these findings to optimize our actions,” the message said. “The fight against pedophilia concerns us all … our support and our prayers will go out to all those who have been abused within the Church.”

Pope Francis issued a new church law in May 2019 requiring all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report pastor sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities.

In June, Francis swiftly rejected a proposal by one of Germany’s foremost clerics and a close papal adviser, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, to resign as Archbishop of Munich and Freising over the Church’s mishandling of cases of abuse. was given. But he said a process of reform was necessary and that every bishop should take responsibility for the “catastrophe” of the crisis.

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Masha Macpherson contributed from Paris and Nicolas Vaux-Montagny from Lyon, France.