Mar 27th, 2019, 11:25 AM

Sexual Assault in the Catholic Church highlighted in French Film

By Zakiyyah Job
The Pope greeting children in Italy, Image Credit: Shutterstock/312860177
The issue of Sexual Assault in the Catholic Church is re-examined through the recent French Film, "Grâce à Dieu".

2019 has not been favorable for the Catholic Church. The Pope held a three-day conference on the 21-24th of Februrary, in the hope to address new measures to bring awareness to sexual assault. This comes subsequently after receiving much backlash for a papal term marred with scandal and little no actions; such as his refusal to address allegations of sexual abuse in D.C. and Chile. All of this coincides with the release of the film Grâce à Dieu, (By the Grace of God), which highlights the recent trial of Bernard Preynat who has been accused of committing sexual assault on hundreds of young-adult males during multiple Boy Scout trips from 1980's-1990s.

Grâce à Dieu presents a  moving display of the timeless pursuit of victims to change the decades-long practice of Institutional Sexual Misconduct in the Catholic Church. The film documents the real-life journey of the three sexual assault survivors in cases throughout 2014-2018 to remove the Priest Father Preynat of the Lyon Parish from his Priestly duties; much of which put him in direct contact with minors.

The film chose to highlight the testimonies of three victims who had suffered from the Priest and the emotional and traumatic scars that had been left as a result. The movie came under fire by lawyers of the former Priest when they saw that the release date of the film would take place right before the upcoming trial date of March 20, 2019, which could potentially sway jurors' opinions regarding the outcome of Preyard’s case. They faced many barriers including confronting a Church with a protect their own mentality and trying to call for the removal of the priest who had still maintained his position as a priest despite receiving many complaints from parents of children who had been abused by this priest.

Many themes of the film have correlated with the recent events revolving the Church and sexual assault. Sexual assault allegations have always been a sore spot for the Catholic Church, as this centuries-old institution has grappled with numerous cases of sexual assault and sexual coverup by Priest and Popes. Current Pope, Pope Francis’ record on sexual assault issues have not been so great. Research by the Pew Research Center found that more than a third of Catholics now say the pope is doing a “poor” job on the issue of sexual abuse. It appears that the well-loved and, often referred to as,  “progressive” Pope has fallen into an unfavorable state among the Catholic public as a result of what many call inaction and denial.

His decision to support a Chilean Bishop accused of covering up a sexual-abuse scandal, and many decried his response of calling the accusations against the bishop “slander.”  Many victims denounce the Pope’s siding with a member of his staff as “herd mentality”, or standing by the word of those in his Papal circle, instead of that of the victims.

As a result, many priests find themselves transferred to other dioceses, instead of having real and substantial measures taken, like excommunication. Interviewed by The Guardian,Thomas Reese, a Jesuit Priest explains this phenomenon and states "they (Bishops, Cardinals) believe the priest when he says he will never do it again; they keep him in ministry; they cover up." The film highlighted this herd mentality behavior, by revealing the survivors' reactions upon realizing that the Priest had still remained in contact with children instead, despite reassurance from the Archbishop of Lyon that he had been cut off.  

In his speech, Francis sought to condemn this behavior, and put concrete and effective measures to put in place. He stated firmly in his address  "We need to be concrete" and even accepted the resignation of said Chilean member accused of covering up prior abuses. According to Euro News part of the proposed actions, includes informing civil authorities of substantial accusations in compliance with local law and making sure non-clerics are involved in Church investigations of abuse. But many critics say that this does not offer enough change, and would prefer to see more effective measures implemented, such as the jailing of the Father and a complete restructure of this institution.

This echoes the cries of victims today who argue that the Pope’s condemnation was not nearly severe enough. One victim interviewed by The Antlantic  states ” The pope is an absolute monarch. He can immediately remove complicit officials,” she said. “The pope has chosen not to act. The credibility of the church has continued forth on a downward spiral as a result of these series of allegations. It is time that the Church makes a firm decision, whether to stand forth with victims, or to remain with the status quo. Movies like Grâce à Dieu further add to the conversation and continue to allow that the Catholic Church does not fall short of their duties to protect all Catholic victims from sexual assault.