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Friday, 15 June, 2001, 10:50 GMT 11:50 UK
Bishop kept quiet over paedophile
Monsignor Pierre Pican, bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux
Victims' families say the bishop should have told police
The defence argues its case on Friday in the trial of a French bishop charged with concealing information that a Roman Catholic priest was sexually abusing young boys.


I am overwhelmed by the number of people who choose to confide in me, and they can do it because they know I have never turned anyone in

Monsignor Pierre Pican
Monsignor Pierre Pican admitted on Thursday to the court in the northern town of Caen that he had concealed the priest's paedophile activities but said he would do the same again.

His defence argues that the secrecy of the confessional exempts him of the duty to report sexual crimes against children.

The priest, Father Rene Bissey, was sentenced to 18 years in prison last October for raping one boy and abusing 10 others in the 1980s and 1990s.

Professional secrecy

When asked during Wednesday's questioning whether, if the situation were repeated, he would denounce the priest, he answered: "Having consulted my conscience in this supreme decision, the answer is no".

"I would encourage him to give himself in. I would involve myself more personally in the case. But I am overwhelmed by the number of people who choose to confide in me, and they can do it because they know I have never turned anyone in," he said.


He did not have full knowledge of the facts... And then there was the situation of the priest who was on the verge of suicide

Bernard Blachard, defence lawyer
As the bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux in the Calvados region in northern France, he was in charge of the diocese where Bissey was a priest.

He learned of Bissey's offences in 1996 from the vicar general of Normandy, who had been approached by distressed parents.

He sent the priest on a retreat and sent him for psychiatric help and two years later transferred him to a nearby parish, where he was arrested.

The defence argues that the bishop did not know the full extent of the events and so could not judge their seriousness.

"You will see that he did not have full knowledge of the facts. We'll be explaining this... And then there was the situation of the priest who was on the verge of suicide," said his lawyer Bernard Blachard.

The bishop's lawyers also say he is protected by professional secrecy, though the prosecution says this legal notion does not apply to crimes against children.

Confession

The case has sparked a heated debate about how far the secrecy of the confessional in the Roman Catholic church should go.

Monsignor Pican denied knowledge of the priest's actions when called to testify at Bissey's trial last October, refusing to say more on the grounds that to do so would compromise his own case.

But at his trial Bissey said he had given detailed accounts to his confessors in the church.

Monsignor Pican's case could set a legal precedent and comes at a time when the Roman Catholic Church is reeling from a string of scandals concerning paedophile priests.

According to church officials in France, of the 25,000 priests nationwide, there are currently 19 under investigation for rape or sexual assault on minors.

In addition, 30 other priests have been convicted in recent years on the same charges, and 11 of them are serving prison sentences.

Monsignor Pican is the first bishop in modern French history to appear in the dock.

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15 Jun 01 | Europe
Crisis in the confessional
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