A row broke out on Thursday in France between the government and a leader of the Catholic church over whether confessions of child abuse made to priests should be reported to the police.
Following the publication of a report this week that estimated that Catholic clergy had abused 216,000 children since 1950, the government summoned Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort for talks about the role of confession on Thursday.
Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort had angered victims’ families on Wednesday by saying that priests were not obliged to report sexual abuse if they heard about it during an act of confession, a Catholic ritual used to admit to sins.
“The secrecy of confession is a requirement and will remain a requirement. In a way, it is above the laws of the Republic. It creates a free space for speaking before God,” Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort, the head of the Bishops’ Conference of France, told Franceinfo.
His words were in line with new Vatican guidelines, released last year on handling clerical child abuse cases, which state that any crime discovered during confession is subject to “the strictest bond of the sacramental seal.”
But in France, victims’ advocates pointed out that French law recognizes professional confidentiality for priests, but it does not apply in potentially criminal cases involving violence or sexual assault against minors.
“Nothing is above the laws of the Republic,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on Thursday in response.
Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort has been summoned to appear before Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin early next week “to explain his comments,” the minister’s office said.
President Emmanuel Macron, who has criticized ultra-conservative Muslims in the past for trying to subvert French law, asked Darmanin to hold the meeting, according to Attal.
In a fresh statement on Thursday, Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort claimed that that confession “had always been respected by the republic.”
The publication on Tuesday of a landmark report on sex abuse in the French Catholic church led Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort to express his “shame and horror,” while Pope Francis expressed “great pain.”
The investigating commission’s two-and-a-half-year inquiry and 2,500-page report concluded that sex abuse by priests had been a “massive phenomenon” that was covered up by a “veil of silence.”
The report found that the “vast majority” of victims were pre-adolescent boys from a variety of social backgrounds. Their abusers were mainly priests, bishops, deacons and monks.
The commission recommended a series of measures to protect minors from predatory clergy, which included priests informing prosecutors of any child abuse they hear mentioned during an act of confession.
“We need to find another way of doing this,” Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort told Franceinfo during his interview on Wednesday.
The Catholic Church, which forbids priests from marrying, has been repeatedly rocked by child sex abuse scandals over the last three decades, particularly in Australia, the United States, Ireland and Germany.