Barbarin: Outspoken cardinal charged with paedophile cover-up

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Cardinal Barbarin flanked by lawyers as he arrives in court in Lyon Cardinal Barbarin flanked by lawyers as he arrives in court in Lyon AFP
Lyon (AFP)
Philippe Barbarin, the French cardinal who went on trial Monday charged with covering up sex abuse of minors by a priest in his diocese, is a conservative cleric who has made headlines for blunt and controversial comments in the past.

The 68-year-old archbishop of Lyon — the most senior Catholic cleric to be caught up in a paedophile scandal in France — is one of the best-known figures in the French church.

Barbarin is accused of ignoring the suffering of clerical abuse victims until they went public with their stories, plunging the Catholic Church into a deep crisis.

“It’s true that I was slow to wake up,” he admitted to Le Parisien newspaper in December 2016.

Earlier that year, he was accused of being insensitive to victims at a press conference when discussing the allegations that he covered up for a paedophile priest.

“The majority of the acts come under the statute of limitations, thank god,” he said.

Barbarin, who denies shielding the priest, called the remark a “language error”.

– ‘Christians aren’t Christian enough’ –

A cerebral figure who has written several books, including one entitled “Dieu est-il perime?” (Has God reached his sell-by date?), takes an unbending stance on Church orthodoxy.

“It’s not my problem if there are few Christians left in France. My problem is that we Christians are not Christian enough,” he said on taking up his post

“I know that some might find it shocking but I’ll say it again: cool Christianity has no future,” he added.

In 2012 and 2013, he fiercely opposed the same-sex marriage bill that brought hundreds of thousands of conservative Catholics onto the streets of France.

“Next, they’ll want three or four-way couples and after that, maybe someday, I don’t know, the ban on incest will be scrapped,” Barbarin argued on TLM channel — remarks for which he again drew criticism.

– ‘Happiest’ in Paris suburbs –

Born into an well-heeled family of 11 children in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, Barbarin was ordained a priest in 1977.

His first parish was the working-class Paris suburb of Creteil, where he spent nearly 17 years which he described in a 2012 interview with Paris Match magazine as “the happiest” of his priesthood.

In 1994, he made the leap to the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, a former French colony where he taught at a seminary for four years and was marked by the grinding poverty he witnessed.

On his return to France, he was named bishop of the central diocese of Moulins before being made archbishop of Lyon in 2002 and cardinal a year later.

In their book about the history of the Catholic Church in Lyon, authors Jean Comby and Bernard Berthod described him as “a bishop of the John Paul II generation” for embracing modern communication — Barbarin tweets regularly — while remaining unyielding on sexual morality.

He is seen as close to the current pope, Francis.

Barbarin has repeatedly spoken out about the threats facing Christians in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, where many Christians have fled persecution by Islamic State fundamentalists, particularly in Syria and Iraq.

In 2014 he announced that Lyon was twinned with the city of Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan — a sanctuary for Christians and other minorities who fled the Islamic State further south.

He faces up to three years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros ($54,000) if convicted of failing to report a priest who abused boy scouts in the 1980s and 1990s in the Lyon area.