How abused boy scouts made the French church tremble

French victims of sexual abuse, Francois Devaux, also President of the French Association of victims of priests abuse "La Parole Liberee" (Freed Speech), addresses the media in the Vatican.
French victims of sexual abuse, Francois Devaux, also President of the French Association of victims of priests abuse "La Parole Liberee" (Freed Speech), addresses the media in the Vatican.
Image: Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

The conviction of the archbishop of Lyon for covering up paedophilia in his diocese is a victory for victim and campaigner Francois Devaux, whose dogged efforts to publicise the abuse have made him a hero - and a reluctant cinema star.

Archbishop Philippe Barbarin, 68, the most senior French cleric caught up in an abuse scandal, was handed a six-month-suspended jail sentence on Thursday for failing to report a priest under his responsibility to police.

The verdict was another shock to the French Church, but a triumph for the victims who have worked for years for justice - none more so than Devaux who has become one of the public faces of the fight.

The bearded 40-year-old interior decorator sounded relieved and satisfied at the court on Thursday, calling the verdict "the end of a long journey" that has come at personal cost.

"For everyone, all the people who joined us - lawyers, journalists, writers, film makers - it has been very invasive, very heavy in our lives for the last four years," he told AFP.

In December 2015, Devaux co-founded a group called La Parole Liberee (Freed Speech) with another victim, Alexandre Dussot-Hezez, who had been abused by the same priest in a parish in Lyon in southeast France.

As a 10-year-old, Devaux had reported being kissed inappropriately by the priest, Bernard Preynat, during a trip with fellow boy scouts in 1990.

His parents later confronted church leaders.

Twenty-five years later, his aim with the victims' group was to create a "space for expression and support for the victims of paedophilia" which would encourage others to testify against Preynat.

A trickle of initial testimony soon turned into a deluge, with more than 80 other people coming forward to denounce Preynat's acts over a 20-year period starting in the 1970s.

The retired priest has since been charged with sexual abuse and will go on trial this year. He has admitted his guilt.

 'Stop the mistakes being repeated' 

Devaux's mission to bring the abuse to light began amid a global outpouring of allegations against Catholic clerics that has led to scandals in countries as far afield as Brazil and Ireland.

He and Dussot-Hezez were moved to act after seeing Preynat again promoted to a position of responsibility within the Lyon diocese, which led Dussot-Hezez to inform archbishop Barbarin of his childhood trauma.

When nothing was done, they went public.

Preynat had first been interviewed by church leaders in 1991 and was prevented from leading scout groups, but he was later allowed to teach children again and held positions of authority in the Lyon area until 2015.

"The goal is to stop the same mistakes being repeated," Devaux had said before the trial began.

'No one above the law'

The story of the Lyon abuse scandal featuring Devaux and Dussot-Hezez has been told in a film called "Grace a Dieu" ("Thanks to God") which is currently in French cinemas.

Devaux collaborated with filmmaker Francois Ozon on the project, but admitted to initially feeling disappointment after watching it.

He objected to how parts of the story had been fictionalised and to how he had been lionised as a character - but he says he views the film positively overall because of its message.

"Ozon was able to express things which we didn't want to, which are pretty unpleasant for us, but which enable you to get a sense of what happened," he told AFP.

The campaigner says he has lost any faith in the Church and sees Thursday's court decision as a victory for secularism.

"No one is above the law," he told AFP. "Man's justice takes precedence over divine justice, and it calls into question many of the foundations of the Catholic institution."

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