VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, a member of the Vatican department charged with sanctioning abuse cases in the Catholic Church, admitted in a statement on Monday (Nov. 7) to sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl 35 years ago when he was a parish priest in his native France.
“I have decided not to remain silent about my situation and to place myself at the disposal of justice, both on the level of society and on that of the Church,” the cardinal said in a letter read by the president of the French Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, at a press conference.
“Thirty-five years ago, when I was a parish priest I behaved reprehensibly with a young 14-year-old girl. My behavior has necessarily caused serious and lasting consequences for this person,” the letter added.
Ricard said he apologized to the young girl and her family as well as all those who will be impacted by the revelation. The cardinal added that in light of this situation he will be “taking a time to retire and pray.”
Ricard, who headed the archdiocese of Bordeaux between 2001 and 2019, headed the French Bishops’ Conference from 2001 to 2007. He has occupied a number of important roles at the Vatican under Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. He was appointed by Francis to the Council of Economic Affairs in 2014 and served until 2019.
He is currently a member of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which, besides overseeing doctrinal matters, is charged with investigating clergy abuse cases in the church.
French bishops are currently meeting for their fall general assembly in Lourdes, which has been reorganized to focus on the abuse crisis in the country.
The Catholic Church in France has been under fire since a 2021 report estimated that 330,000 children were abused by clergy in the country in a span of 70 years. Ricard is among 11 clergy members, including former Bishop Michel Santier of Créteil, who are currently under investigation for sexual abuse.
Beaufort told reporters that among the accused, six were bishops and one is deceased. The archbishop said that Ricard’s revelations came as “a shock” to the French episcopacy.
The Vatican announced that Santier was retiring in 2021 for health reasons, but the diocese of Créteil admitted that the bishop had been accused of sexual abuse in the 1990s. The Vatican did not reply to a request for comment.
Asked about the clerical abuse situation in France on his return flight from Bahrain on Sunday (Nov. 6), Francis underlined that abuse is a widespread phenomenon that for the most part takes place in the family and community. The pope added that the tendency to cover up abuse in the church has changed.
“In this awakening, making investigations and moving ahead with accusations, everything has not always (and everywhere) been the same, some things have been hidden,” Francis said. “That is why we should not be surprised that cases like this come to light.”
“It is a process that we are undertaking, and we are carrying it out with courage, and not everyone has courage; sometimes there is the temptation to compromise, and we are also all slaves to our sins, but the will of the church is to clarify everything,” he said.
Francis has enacted a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, enforcing the mandatory reporting of abuse to authorities and making sexual abuse a criminal offense at the Vatican.
Only three cardinals have been officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church for sexual abuse. In 1995, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër stepped down as Archbishop of Vienna following numerous reports of sexual abuse but never underwent a canonical trial. Benedict prohibited Cardinal Keith O’Brien from participating in the 2013 conclave due to abuse allegations; two years later, Francis stripped O’Brien of his cardinal rights.
In 2019, Francis defrocked former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after a Vatican investigation found him guilty of abusing minors and seminarians.