Pope Francis came under fire after meeting Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the Lyon archbishop who is suspected of covering up for a paedophile priest in a scandal that has rocked the Church in France.
“There was a meeting, nothing out of the ordinary,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said, adding that he expected the two men had discussed the crisis in the French church, as well as regular business.
A support group for the alleged victims in the French scandal voiced regret that Francis had met with Barbarin while magistrates are still mulling whether the cardinal should face criminal charges.
“We would have liked to have been received instead of the cardinal, we note that once again it’s the victims who are sidelined,” Bertrand Virieux, a co-founder of Lyon-based group “La Parole Liberee”, told AFP.
Virieux said he had written to the pope in March seeking an audience.
The surprise meeting with Barbarin came three days after the pope was quoted as saying it would be “nonsensical and imprudent” to seek the archbishop’s resignation at this stage, arguing that would be to imply he was guilty of potential criminal charges against him.
French examining magistrates are currently carrying out two preliminary investigations to decide whether to pursue charges against the archbishop for his handling of the allegations against Bernard Preynat, a priest in his diocese who has been charged with sex abuse.
Preynat was charged in January after admitting to sexual assaults on four boy scouts between 1986 and 1991 – crimes which his lawyers say he can no longer be convicted of.
La Parole Liberee says it has identified more than 50 victims.
According to the Lyon diocese, Barbarin first received testimony from an alleged victim in mid-2014 and relieved Preynat of his duties in May 2015.
Francis said in an interview with French Catholic newspaper La Croix this week that he believed Barbarin had “taken the necessary measures, and had the situation in hand.
“He is brave, creative, a missionary. We should now wait for the outcome of the civilian judicial procedure.” Victims groups reacted angrily, saying Francis could not possibly know all the details of a case they say highlights the reluctance of the Church to hand paedophile priests over to criminal authorities.