France | Trial exposes how church covered for predator priest
One of the first people to notice Bernard Preynat’s unhealthy obsession for young boys was the supervisor at the seminary where, still a teen, the future priest started training for his career in the church.
“At 14, 15 years old, I became interested in the youngest boys and the supervisor summoned me to tell me that I was abnormal and sick,” the self-confessed child abuser said at his trial in France this past week. “I explained this to the bishop.”
And yet, after a two-year church-imposed course of psychotherapy, Preynat was still ordained into the priesthood. This chance, the first of many, to keep him away from children was spurned by the church hierarchy, which instead consistently – and successfully – long kept his abuses under wraps.
Now, at Preynat’s trial in the city of Lyon, a fuller picture of the damage he wrought on dozens of boys and their families is emerging. Four days of hearings also gave a long-overdue airing to the enabling role played by French church officials. Aware of his abuses, Lyon cardinals told him to stop but didn’t report him to police, he said.
“Had the church sidelined me earlier, I would have stopped earlier,” the 74-year-old testified.
Only last July – about 40 years after parents first wrote to the Lyon diocese to raise alarm about the priest – was Preynat finally defrocked. Preyat told the court that he can’t recall exactly how many boys he abused but estimated their number at no fewer than 75.
The shocking testimony of Preynat and his victims is dealing another blow to the French Catholic Church as it reckons with sexual abuses that were long covered up.
Preynat faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of sexually abusing minors in what is France’s biggest clergy sex abuse trial to date. The prosecution asked for a sentence not less than eight years. A verdict is expected March 16.
For victims, the trial has reinforced suspicions that had church officials acted far sooner, they might have been spared terrifying boyhood memories of being sexually abused. In court, they recalled how Preynat smelled of cigars and panted as he pressed his belly against them.
“This trial shows that supervisors in the hierarchy were aware. We can see there was a lid over the diocese,” said Pierre-Emmanuel Germain-Thill, who says his life was turned upside down by abuse he suffered. “On several occasions, parents denounced him.”
Preynat said the psychotherapy the church made him undergo from 1967-1968 as a condition for being able to continue training for the priesthood quickly proved to be a failure.
“I thought I was cured after my therapy,” he testified. “I was disappointed because I started again with the kids. After that, no other member of the church encouraged me to do another one.”
His ordination in 1972 gave him both regular access to boys — he ran a scout group — and status to win the trust of unsuspecting parents.
Preynat testified that while working as their scout chaplain, he abused up to two boys “almost every weekend” from 1970 to 1990 and as many as four or five a week when he led one-week scout camps.