PARIS — A French court has set a date in early 2019 for the criminal trial of a French cardinal and a high-ranking Vatican prelate suspected of covering up a child sex abuse scandal in the eastern diocese of Lyon.
Victims of a priest who has confessed to preying on them have summoned Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, Monsignor Luis Ladaria Ferrer, head of a powerful office in the Vatican, and five other Catholic Church officials to appear together in court for allegedly being informed of the priest's past abuses and not reporting them to authorities.
A Lyon court on Wednesday set the trial to January 7-9. The lawsuit is the most prominent church sex abuse case to date in France.
Barbarin and some of the other defendants will also be tried for leaving the priest in contact with children until he retired in 2015, while knowing he had a history of sexual assaults.
The 67-year-old cardinal, one of the highest-ranking figures in the French Catholic Church, has admitted some "mistakes" in the management and nominations of certain priests but denied any attempt to cover up the case. Pope Francis has lent his support to Barbarin, saying he was a "brave" man.
The seven defendants, including another archbishop and a bishop, would face up to three years in prison and a 45,000-euro ($53,000) fine if found guilty of failing to report the priest's crimes. The penalty would be increased to up to five years in prison and a 75,000-euro ($88,000) fine for those convicted of failing to assist a person in danger.
The victims, most of them now in their 30s and 40s, have claimed a local priest, Rev. Bernard Preynat, sexually abused them when they were boy scouts aged between 7 and 12 in the Lyon region between 1986 and 1991, well before Barbarin was appointed archbishop of Lyon in 2002.
Dozens of older abuses by the same priest were reported to local Church officials and judicial authorities but couldn't give rise to legal complaints because of the statute of limitations.
Preynat, now in his 70s, confessed his wrongdoings in letters to victims' parents and meetings with his superiors, including Barbarin. His last known abuses were in 1991.
A separate criminal investigation is still ongoing on Preynat who was given preliminary charges of sexual assaults on minors. Judges have yet to send him to trial.
After the prosecutor's office in Lyon dismissed the cover-up case in 2016, victims decided to summon Barbarin and others, their only way to force a trial.
Jean Boudot, a lawyer for a plaintiff, said the upcoming trial will hopefully help to put an end to the "culture of omerta" — an unwritten rule of silence — in the Church. "We do not want this to happen to others," he told The Associated Press.
Emmanuelle Haziza, another plaintiff's lawyer, insisted that "the Church has not yet fully realized the extent and seriousness of the phenomenon of pedophilia within it."
"With this trial, we want to show that no one is above the law, help other victims to report sex crimes and detail the chain of responsibilities within the Church," Haziza told the AP.
That's why the victims also want Monsignor Ladaria to appear in court in Lyon next year. They say Barbarin sought advice on the Preynat case with the Roman prelate when he was the secretary, or number 2, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that processes and evaluates all cases of priests accused of raping or molesting minors.
In reply, Ladaria sent the cardinal a letter in 2015 to recommend keeping the priest away from children, "while avoiding any public scandal." The letter is part of court documents in the case. The Vatican spokesman declined to comment on Ladaria being summoned to stand trial in France.
Ladaria has since been promoted prefect, or head, of the Congregation, becoming one of the highest ranking Church officials in the Vatican.
The much-publicized Preynat-Barbarin case led the French Church to take a series of measures to fight pedophilia among priests.