Commission president Jean-Marc Sauve, left, hands copies of the report to Catholic Bishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the Bishops' Conference of France (CEF), during the publishing of a report by an independant commission into sexual abuse by church officials (Ciase), Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Paris. A major French report released Tuesday found that an estimated 330,000 children were victims of sex abuse within France's Catholic Church over the past 70 years, in France's first major reckoning with the devastating phenomenon. (Thomas Coex, Pool via AP)

According to Tuesday’s report, 330,000 children have been victims of sex abuse in France’s Catholic Church over 70 years. This is the first major accounting of this worldwide phenomenon.

This figure includes abuses by around 3,000 priests and other church members — wrongdoing Catholic authorities have covered up for decades in a systematic manner, according to Jean-Marc Sauve, the president of Jean-Marc Sauve’s commission that produced the report.

According to the report, the head of the French bishops conference asked for forgiveness of the victims. About 80% of them were boys. The next steps will be discussed by the bishops who meet Tuesday.

Independent commission called for strong action from the church, denouncing “faults and silence” and urging the Catholic Church to compensate victims in cases that are too old to be prosecuted by the courts.

Sauve stated that the consequences of sexual abuse are severe. “About 60%” of those who have been sexually abused experience major problems in their sexual or emotional lives.

He said, “We consider that the church owes victims a debt.”

This document of 2,500 pages was published by the Catholic Church in France as a way to confront shameful secrets long hidden.

Victims praised the report for being long overdue.

Francois Devaux (head of La Parole Liberee victims’ group) said that it was “a turning moment in our history.”

He condemned the coverups that allowed “mass crime for decades”

He said that “But worse, there was an act of betrayal: betrayal, betrayal, morality, betrayal by children, betrayal, innocence.” He called on the church to compensate him.

Olivier Savignac (head of the victims association Parler et Revivre) contributed to the investigation. According to him, the high number of victims per abuser was especially “terrifying” for French society and the Catholic Church.

Savignac criticized the church for not treating such cases as an individual anomaly and as a collective terror. At 13 years old, he described being abused by the director at a Catholic vacation camp south of France. He was also accused of assaulting other boys.

Savignac stated that he perceived the priest as a good person, someone who cared about me and would not harm him. “But it was when he touched me and I was lying on the bed, half-naked, that I realized that something was wrong …. And we keep this, it’s almost like a growing cyst. It’s almost like gangrene in the victim’s body, and the victim’s psyche.

The priest was eventually found guilty of child sex abuse and sentenced to two years imprisonment with one year suspended.

For 2 1/2 years, the commission listened to victims and their witnesses, and studied news archives from the 1950s, court, police, and church. The review began with 6,500 calls to a hotline that was opened at the start of the review from victims and people who claimed to know a victim.

Sauve said that the attitude of the church towards victims up to the start of 2000s was “a deep, cruel and indifference.”

According to the report, an estimated 3,000 child abusers were involved in the church over the period of seven decades. Two-thirds of these priests are also listed. Sauve stated that this number is likely to be underestimated. He said that the number of victims includes 216,000 people who were abused by priests or other clerics.

These estimates are based upon research by France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research on the sexual abuse of children in France.

Sauve stated that “sometimes church officials didn’t denounce (sex abuses), and even exposed children at risk by putting them into contact with predators.” “We believe that the church owes victims a debt.”

Eric de Moulins Beaufort, president of the Conference of Bishops of France said that the bishops were “appalled” by the conclusions of this report.

He told the victims, “I would like to ask for pardon on that day,”

Sauve stated that 22 of the alleged crimes which could be prosecuted have been sent to prosecutors. Over 40 cases that involve alleged perpetrators still alive but too old for prosecution have been forwarded by Sauve to the church officials.

The commission made 45 recommendations on how to prevent abuse. These included training priests or other clerics, revising Canon Law (the legal code used by the Vatican to govern the church) and encouraging policies to recognize and pay victims.

This report is coming after the scandal surrounding Bernard Preynat, a now-defrocked priest, rocked France’s Catholic Church. Preynat was sentenced to five years imprisonment for sexually abusing minors last year. Preynat admitted to abusing more than 75 boys over a period of decades.

The Preynat trial led to Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the former archbishop in Lyon, resigning last year. He was accused of not reporting the abuses to civil authorities after he became aware of them in 2010. France’s highest court ruled that Barbarin didn’t cover up the matter earlier this year.

In a message to parishioners, the French archbishops stated that the report’s publication is “a test and a difficult and serious moment.”

Pope Francis issued a new church law in May 2019, requiring all Catholic priests worldwide to report any clergy sexual abuse or cover-ups by their superiors, to the church authorities.

Pope Francis rejected in June a proposal from Cardinal Reinhard Marx to be resigned as archbishop de Munich and Freising for his mishandling of abuse cases. He said that reform was needed and that every bishop should take responsibility for the “catastrophe.”