A French bishop admitted yesterday that he had allowed a self-confessed paedophile priest to continue his parish work without informing the police and without making any effort to discover the extent of his sexual crimes.
"I assumed it was just a question of touching," Monsignor Pierre Pican, the Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux told a court in Caen, Normandy on the first day of his trial.
The bishop is the first senior churchman in France to be put on trial for "failure to denounce sexual attacks on minors below the age of 15". The case has caused consternation in the French Catholic church, forcing it to make a public declaration advising its bishops not to cover up criminal offences by clergymen.
Mgr Pican's lawyers are, nevertheless, claiming that he was acting within the rules of "professional secrecy" when he failed to report the evidence against Abbé René Bissey in December 1996. Abbé Bissey was convicted last year of 12 offences of rape and sexual assault on boys aged between 12 and 17.
The examining magistrate who investigated the case rejected the bishop's defence and said that he had "acted purely to protect the church from a scandal". If convicted of covering up the priest's offences, the bishop faces a three-year jail sentence and a fine of up to £30,000.
The bishop admitted yesterday that he knew the priest had committed "acts of a paedophile nature".
The mother of one of the victims had complained to his vicar-general or right-hand man Father Michel Marcel in December 1996. The bishop said that he was "convinced of the truth of the facts reported by Father Marcel".
Mgr Pican knew that Abbé Bissey, a parish priest in Caen, had confessed and had admitted there were "other victims". The bishop said, however, he had done nothing to investigate the extent of the abbé's crimes, nor identify the other victims or tell the police.
Father Marcel, the man to whom the abbé confessed, told the court that he had reported everything he knew to the bishop. There was great concern at the time, he said, about the "state of the abbé's health". The bishop asked him "to be available and close to this man, so that he could assume responsibility for his actions". The mother who complained wanted no police action to be taken, he said.
Nothing was, therefore, done to alert the authorities or trace other children who might have been attacked by Abbé Bissey.
The priest was sent to a psychiatrist and ordered to spend time in a rest home. He was then transferred to another parish in Caen, about four miles from the scene of his crimes.
The bishop's lawyers argue that 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 the lawyers for families of Bissey's victims say Mgr Pican cannot use this justification, since the conversation took place outside the confessional so was not protected by law.
The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Murphy O'Connor, faced calls to resign after saying he had done nothing irresponsible in allowing a known paedophile to work as a chaplain.
The French Roman Catholic Church made the issue a central theme of a national conference last year and issued a statement saying it would not tolerate cover-ups of criminal acts.
The case continues.