Bishop on trial over abuse case
CAEN, France -- A French Catholic bishop has gone on trial for covering up the activities of a paedophile priest.
The Bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux, Pierre Pican, arrived at court for the first day of his trial in the northwestern town of Caen surrounded by bodyguards.
He has been charged with failing to turn in a priest who was later jailed for 18 years for the rape of one boy and sexual abuse of 10 others between 1989 and 1996.
Pican was placed under formal investigation in January 2000 after families of Father Rene Bissey's victims filed complaints, alleging that the religious leader knew what Bissey was doing.
Under French law, a failure to report rape and sexual abuse warrants a three-year prison term. Pican, 66, said he spoke to Bissey in January 1997 after learning of one abuse case.
However, he said he failed to follow up on other cases the priest admitted to during their talk, Reuters news agency said.
"The failure to investigate what had happened to other victims was a lack of vigilance on our part," said the bishop.
Judge Emile Hector told the court that in December 1996, Pican was told by his vicar general, Michel Morcel, that the mother of a young boy had complained about Bissey sexually assaulting her child, Associated Press reported.
"As soon as I found out about the acts of pedophilia allegedly committed by Rev. Bissey, I told my bishop and we agreed to meet him rapidly, which we did," Morcel told the court.
Asked by the state prosecutor, Jacques-Philippe Segondat, what action the two men then took, Morcel said, "We tried to be close to this man so that he would realise what he was doing."
When Pican was called to testify he admitted that he knew about Bissey's acts but said he thought "it was just a case of fondling."
Segondat asked him if he had wondered if it could be more than that. "No," Pican said. Pican sent Bissey on a retreat and then had him seek psychiatric help. He did not contact police about the allegations.
He then transferred Bissey to a nearby parish in September 1998 but the priest was arrested on paedophilia charges a few days later.
In the charge sheet, the judge wrote: "The procedure that took place shows that at no point was the situation of the victims taken into account.
"Father Pican cared only about the fate of Father Bissey."
Pican's lawyers argue France's professional secrecy laws give him the right to remain silent on information that Bissey gave him during a private conversation.
French law respects the secrecy of information divulged to a priest by a Catholic confessing sins in a church confessional.
But lawyers for families of Bissey's victims say Pican cannot use this justification, since the conversation took place outside the confessional and was thus not protected by law.
Pican is the first French bishop to face prosecution on a charge of failing to inform on a paedophile priest.
In a front page editorial, the Catholic daily La Croix, said: "Behind Father Pican, it is the Catholic Church that risks being judged at this trial."
The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales faced calls to resign after saying he had done nothing irresponsible in allowing a known paedophile to work as a chaplain.
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