‘By the grace of God’ – French ‘Spotlight’ tackles abuse within the Catholic Church
The French movie “By the grace of God”, beautifully constructed and performed, makes a significant and sensitive contribution to the scandal of sexual abuse in the Church.
On 7th March 2019, French Cardinal Barbarin was found guilty of non-disclosure of child sexual abuse and failure to provide assistance. He received a 6-month suspended sentence.
The claims relate to the abuse committed between the 1980’s and 1990’s by priest Bernard Preynat, who ran a boy-scout group for many years. Dozens of survivors have come forward and reported having been sexually abused by him as boy scouts. During that time, it is now known that Cardinal Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon and the most senior Roman Catholic cleric, knew of the abuse – having been made aware of it by other members of the clergy or families of the survivors. He has always denied this.
The case has inspired a movie “By the Grace of God” directed by François Ozon. The movie approaches the case from the survivors’ perspective. Through the three main characters, all very different profiles of survivors of Preynat’s abuse, the movie tackles a lot of important issues concerning survivors of child sexual abuse.
It successfully shows how survivors are all different in their suffering and in their experience of abuse.
It tackles very important issues that survivors of abuse within the Church face: their difficulty to trust; their internal conflicts with personal faith; their frustration and anger towards the inertia of the institution.
It also highlights the importance of support from family and friends, the importance of being believed and listened to by professionals. Ultimately, the movie shows “it feels good to know you’re not alone” – as one of the character says – and it is rewarding to speak up for other survivors.
It highlights the denial in which some survivors as well as some parents lived, the feeling of guilt of those who did not speak up, the place of forgiveness, the debates between the survivors themselves on the meaning of their actions – “we do not do this against the Church but for the Church”, explains one of the survivors.
In the Barbarin case, the men sexually abused by Preynat brought a claim against the Cardinal and other members of the Catholic Church with the assistance of the victims’ association created by 45 survivors of Preynat, “La Parole Libérée”. The association brought the abuse and the shocking irresponsibility of the diocese to the public eye. Survivors demanded answers from Cardinal Barbarin: how long have they known that Father Preynat, his underling, is a paedophile; how long did the Vatican know?
In a most revealing scene, taken from the real-life press conference held by the Cardinal in March 2016, he recounts a conversation between himself and Preynat: “I asked him if any children had been harmed, assaulted or bothered since 1990” and later goes on to use the titular phrase ‘By the grace of God’– “By the grace of God, the statute of limitations has expired”.
It is this shocking exaltation of faith that was quite rightly pounced upon but what is more subtly disclosed by this pivotal scene is the Cardinal’s acute awareness of the statute of limitations and the legal protection it entitles institutions such as the Church and, by extension, himself.
At the time of the case, the limitation law was that survivors could only bring a case if they reported the abuse they suffered as children before the age of 38, 20 years after the age of 18.
The French law on limitation changed in August 2018 with the “Loi Schiappa”. Today, survivors of child abuse have 30 years from the age of 18 to file a complaint. Activists, survivors and politicians are still fighting to get rid of the limitation statute altogether, understanding that many children cannot speak out about their abuse for various reasons – and recognising that time should not be an obstacle.
It is worth noting that the crime for which Barbarin was convicted in France, “non-disclosure of child sexual abuse and failure to provide assistance” is not an existing offence in England Wales. The legislative duty to report known or suspected child abuse or neglect is not a recognised criminal offence. Although the British Government introduced mandatory reporting for female genital mutilation (FGM) in 2015, it appears more than necessary that the law introduces a generalised mandatory reporting obligation for child abuse.