French actor breaks silence on child sex abuse within church

At 8 years old, Laurent Martinez was sexually abused by a priest

Author and actor Laurent Martinez gestures as he speaks during an interview with The Associated-Press at “Theo Theater” in Paris, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. French author and actor Laurent Martinez has been sexually abused by a priest. Over forty years later, he has chosen to make his story a theater play to show the devastating consequences and how speaking out can help overcoming the trauma. The play called “Pardon?” is deeply inspired from the Martinez’s own life, describing how he felt devoured from the inside and the difficulties of daily life after being abused.

By SYLVIE CORBET

At the age of eight, Laurent Martinez was sexually abused by a priest. Forty years later, he has chosen to make his story into a play, to show the devastating consequences and how speaking out can help victims heal and rebuild.

The play called “Pardon?” is drawn from the French author and actor’s own life, describing how he felt devoured from the inside by the abuse and struggled with daily life after it.

Despite the shocking revelations, Martinez deplored that “there is no — absolutely no — sense of urgency” within the church.

“They are clearly slammed by the numbers” but “they are just talking, talking, talking,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

For Martinez, now 52, memories of the abuse remain vivid.

The priest who was teaching his catechism classes found pretexts to see the 8-year-old Martinez alone, kissing and touching his genitals, he said. One day, Martinez recalls, the abuser invited him to his apartment and forced the boy to engage in oral sex. Under French law, that would be classified as rape.

Martinez later told his parents, who alerted the diocese, and the priest was moved away. He believes the priest is now dead. Like most victims of sex abuse in the church, particularly before the church abuse scandals of the 2000s, Martinez didn’t seek legal recourse. Now it would be too late because of statutes of limitations.

For decades, Martinez buried the abuse inside him, only speaking about it to his two wives.

“For me, sexual relationships were marked in me as something forbidden. So it’s been very difficult for me to go through it, and I had to find very patient partners,” he said.

The play shows how the abuse affected his emotional and sexual life as an adult, making him sometimes grow aggressive or overreact to everyday worries — but also how it led him to be very protective towards children.

Martinez said he spent 40 years “wearing the mask of someone else” and “seeking to hide something that was like a cancer inside me.”

A few years ago, he felt he needed to speak out because he was fed up with keeping the trauma inside him.

“I thought: I need to do something. It’s not possible to continue like that,” he said.

The play was shown for the first time at the Avignon arts festival in 2019. That is also when he first told his two sons, now 21 and 11, about the abuse. Since then, Martinez’s play has been playing in theaters in Paris and across France and a performance of it was shown on France’s Catholic television network KTO.

“I’ve been in pain for so long, and now I’m an actor so … I’m acting my pain. I’m not in it anymore,” he said.

In recent weeks, Martinez, who lost his faith following the abuse, made a new, decisive step. After much hesitation, he asked the head of the Conference of Bishops of France, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, whether he could seek Martinez’ forgiveness in the name of his abuser.

“He accepted and it was tremendous emotionally for everybody that night,” Martinez remembers. “I gave my forgiveness to the priest that raped me.”

After that, “I felt really completely free of the whole burden of anger, of the desire of revenge. All the bad feelings I had just had vanished, just because I had forgiven,” he said.

“Little by little the trauma is disappearing,” Martinez added. “What helped more was to be able to forgive the priest.”

The actor had been previously in touch with Moulins-Beaufort, who supported the play and offered to show it to French bishops as part of the church’s efforts to face up to shameful secrets that were long covered up.

The offer is evidence of the Catholic hierarchy’s belated realization that listening to survivors is a fundamental part of the church’s own process of coming to terms with the problem and helping them heal.

Pope Francis came to that realization at a 2019 summit he convened with the heads of all the world’s bishops conferences, which featured wrenching testimonies from victims about abuse and the lifelong trauma it caused. For many bishops, it was the first time they had ever actually listened to a survivor, since so often the church ignored victims or treated them as an enemy out to harm the institution.

Among many recommendations in last week’s report about church abuse in France are measures that would institutionalize ways for church hierarchy to better help and hear victims. The report estimates that at least 2,900-3,200 male clergy members were responsible for sexual abuse of children in France since the 1950s, and accuses the church of a systemic coverup.

Martinez knows that his play is helping other people who suffered similar ordeals, and hopes it encourages them to speak out and seek help.

Some “come to see me and say: ‘Thank you so much, because, you know, this is also my story. And you are the first person I’m telling that to.’”

“The most difficult thing is to say it once,” Martinez stressed. “Then you get the strength to say it again and again and again. And then you’re free, or at least you are on the good path to freedom.”

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Limerick priest compares aspects of the Church to the Taliban

Fr Roy O’Donovan

By Donal O’Regan

A LIMERICK priest has compared the Catholic Church to the Taliban on how they both treat women.

Fr Roy Donovan, parish priest of Caherconlish and Inch St. Laurence, has spoken out following a recent statement from Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy.

It was titled, “Change taking shape as greater lay involvement in the Church emerges”. The bishop also asked for expressions of interest from men over 35 years of age, married or single, interested in taking up roles as permanent deacons.

Fr Donovan said Bishop Leahy’s intention of introducing the male Diaconate into the diocese is a “return to the dark ages”.

“In recent weeks we have learned of the Taliban’s negative attitudes to women in Afghanistan, that of exclusion from education and the public domain.

“In the Catholic Church, women are excluded from the hierarchial (patriarchial) structures – no woman can be ordained a deacon, priest, bishop, cardinal or pope. Women are excluded from leadership, governance and decision making in the Church.

“Women have no vote in the upcoming Bishops’ Synod 2023 on Synodality. The Catholic Church at many levels, like the Taliban, treats women as second-class citizens,” said Fr Donovan, who is originally from Knockarron, Emly and served for many years in Dublin.

In his statement, Bishop Leahy said deacons had a ministry in the early Church which focused on service, both within the church community helping in the administration of the diocese and in reaching out to the marginalised in society.

Fr Donovan said up until the 12th century, the Catholic Church ordained women deacons, although by then their service was mostly restricted to women’s monasteries.

“Some Orthodox churches that split from the Catholic Church in the 11th century still do. In the New Testament Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul introduces Phoebe as a ‘deacon of the church at Cenchreae’.

“He also names Priscilla and Junia and several other women leaders,” said Fr Donovan, who is one of the leaders of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) but is speaking in a personal capacity.

The priest said this move towards male deacons “raises questions about how women in the Limerick Synod have allowed this to go forward or have they?”

“It also raises questions about having a meaningful Synod in the Irish Church. Men in every diocese in Ireland and throughout the world should join in solidarity with women and refuse the male Diaconate,” concluded Fr Donovan.

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Years into attorney general probe of Maryland Catholic church, survivors wonder where it stands

Liz Murphy is a survivor of abuse at the former Catholic Community middle school in Baltimore in the 1970s.

By Alison Knezevich

Three years after it became public that Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh was investigating child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, abuse survivors are wondering: Is he building a case or has the probe stalled?

In September 2018, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori told clergy the archdiocese was under investigation by the state. A few months later, church officials confirmed they had given the attorney general more than 50,000 pages of internal documents dating to 1965.

But to this day, Frosh has not provided details on the investigation, which members of his office say is ongoing.

“Honestly, I’m shocked that it would take this long to charge anybody or find anything,” said Liz Murphy, who was interviewed twice in 2018 by an investigator with the attorney general’s office about the abuse she suffered at a Catholic school in South Baltimore in the 1970s.

The lack of a conclusion to the investigation stands in contrast to a two-year examination in Pennsylvania that resulted in an explosive grand jury report in 2018. It said more than 300 priests abused more than 1,000 children in that state and named church leaders who protected them and helped cover up accusations.

State legislators changed laws related to abuse investigations and how long victims have to file lawsuits. As a result of the report, about 150 lawsuits have been filed against Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses.

Three Catholic dioceses operate in Maryland. A spokesman for the Diocese of Wilmington, which includes Maryland’s Eastern Shore, said it was notified of Frosh’s investigation and is cooperating.

The Archdiocese of Washington, which includes the D.C. suburbs and Southern Maryland, did not respond to a request for comment.

Frosh, a Democrat, did not announce the review; it took Lori’s statements to make it public.

Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Frosh, recently told the Baltimore Sun that the probe is “an ongoing criminal investigation.”

Coombs said the office has conducted hundreds of interviews as part of the investigation, which is being overseen by Elizabeth Embry, a special assistant to Frosh. But Coombs said she cannot provide details because it remains open.

Christian Kendzierski, a spokesman for the Baltimore Archdiocese, said church leaders “continue to cooperate with any request from the attorney general’s office or any request from a law enforcement agency.”

He didn’t answer specific questions about whether the church has turned over more documents in the past few years or whether state investigators have interviewed archdiocese personnel.

Murphy and others who have participated in the investigation hoped it would mean some degree of accountability for the nation’s oldest diocese.

In 1995, former Catholic Community middle school teacher John Merzbacher was convicted of raping Murphy when she was a child, in one of Baltimore’s most high-profile abuse cases. Murphy considers the conviction only “half justice,” alleging people in the archdiocese who enabled the teacher at the Locust Point school have never faced charges.

Multiple abuse survivors told the Sun they were interviewed for Maryland’s investigation by Rich Wolf, a former FBI agent who now works in Frosh’s office.

“Everybody I’ve talked to has said he’s very good, he’s very professional, he’s very thorough,” said David Lorenz, the Maryland director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Several survivors say when they’ve asked, they, too, have been told the investigation is “ongoing

But with no substantial updates, people are getting frustrated, Lorenz said.

They include Linda Malat Tiburzi, who, like Murphy, alleges she was sexually abused by Merzbacher in the 1970s. Prosecutors dropped charges involving Tiburzi and a dozen others after Merzbacher was given four life sentences for Murphy’s case; he remains in prison on the Eastern Shore.

She said her feelings about the investigation are complicated.

“As more time passes, frustration grows, yet also I remain hopeful,” said Tiburzi, who was interviewed as part of the state investigation. “If this investigation does not produce viable evidence, how can survivors believe in our justice system and have courage to come forward?”

Murphy said with all the evidence already aired in the Merzbacher case, it’s hard for her to understand why the attorney general investigation is taking so long. A Baltimore Sun investigation in 2012 found that court documents indicated Catholic officials knew about Merzbacher’s abuse in the 1970s but didn’t report it at the time.

“They have evidence,” Murphy said.

The Sun typically does not name people who say they’re victims of sexual crimes, but those interviewed for this story agreed to be identified.

Many victims fear that no one believes them, Lorenz said. So, “when the Pennsylvania grand jury report came out there, there were a lot of people who felt like someone was finally on their side and hearing their story.”

“When somebody of authority like an attorney general stands up in front of a press conference and says, ‘I believe these people,’ that’s an amazing, healing thing,” Lorenz said.

The Maryland attorney general’s staff has periodically posted notices on social media, most recently in June, encouraging victims and witnesses of abuse associated with “a school or place of worship” to report that information to Frosh’s office. The notices don’t specify the Catholic Church. The office has received about 300 tips through a hotline and email, Coombs said.

Nationwide, more than 20 state attorneys general have launched investigations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in recent years, according to Child USA, a Philadelphia-based think tank focused on protecting children from abuse and neglect.

Child USA Legal Director Alice Bohn said these investigations offer the public a window into what went wrong.

The more people know “about how abuse happens, the more prepared we all are to prevent it,” not just in the Catholic Church, but in all institutions that interact with children. “The ultimate hope is for prevention,” Bohn said.

In some states, attorneys general have said they don’t have authority to investigate under their local laws, Bohn said. In other places, criminal charges have resulted.

For instance, the Michigan attorney general’s office has charged 11 people connected to the Catholic Church since launching an investigation in 2018. Four have been convicted.

It is encouraging to many survivors that authorities are conducting the reviews, said Mike McDonnell, spokesman for SNAP.

“We see more evidence produced because of them. We see more individuals named as predators,” McDonnell said. “And most importantly, we are seeing more healing happen for survivors because their stories are being vetted.”

The investigations nationwide have exposed the extent of abuse in the church and helped bolster advocates’ push to change state laws to extend the court deadlines for victims to sue their abusers and pursue criminal charges against them.

This year alone, 14 states have enacted legislation to change statute of limitation laws, according to Child USA.

Maryland has no criminal statute of limitations for felonies, including sexual crimes against children, but limits when someone can sue. Kurt Rupprecht, who has testified in favor of changing Maryland’s abuse laws, said he hoped the attorney general’s investigation would lead to broader changes for survivors, such as lifting the civil statute of limitations.

Rupprecht alleges he was sexually abused at age 9 in 1979 by a priest in Salisbury and violently attacked when he resisted.

He repressed the memories for decades but said he struggled with “manic rage,” suicidal thoughts and self-harm, he said, affecting his family and career.

In 2017, he reported the abuse allegations to the sheriff’s office in Wicomico County. The next year, when the attorney general’s investigation became public, he contacted Frosh’s office and detailed his experience in an interview with Wolf.

“As this has gone well into 2021, I’m concerned that maybe this isn’t going to happen,” Rupprecht said. Still, “I’m hoping for a report — a full report. I hope all the facts come out.”

In being interviewed for a law enforcement investigation, “you are sharing things that are always difficult to share,” said Jean Wehner, who was featured in the 2017 Netflix documentary series “The Keepers.” It examined abuse at Archbishop Keough High School and the unsolved death of Sister Cathy Cesnik.

Wehner said she wanted to participate in the attorney general’s investigation to help other survivors and corroborate their stories, but now feels like she’s been left hanging.

Teresa Lancaster, whose story was also featured in “The Keepers,” said survivors “deserve to know” where the investigation stands.

“How long do we have to wait?” she said.

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Catholic clergy in France likely abused more than 200,000 minors, independent commission estimates

Commission president Jean-Marc Sauvé at the release of a report by an independent commission on sexual abuse by church officials, in Paris on Oct. 5.

By Rick Noack, Chico Harlan

A major report released Tuesday said French Catholic clerics had abused more than 200,000 minors over the past 70 years, a systemic trauma that the inquiry’s leader described as deep and “cruel.”

The report’s findings could trigger a public reckoning in a country where church officials long stalled efforts to investigate complicity. The findings also add to the picture of country-by-country trauma within a religion that has tended to find abuse on a stunning scale anywhere it has looked.

The Vatican said in a statement that Pope Francis had been informed of the report during a recent visit by French bishops. “His thoughts turn first to the victims, with immense sorrow for their injuries and gratitude for their courage to speak out,” the statement said, adding that Francis hopes the French church can follow a path of “redemption” after becoming aware of this “appalling reality.”

The Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, set up more than two years ago with the approval of French church officials, examined decades of accusations in much the manner of other landmark reports — whether from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Australia or the United States.

Commission leader Jean-Marc Sauvé said his team had identified only a small percentage of victims, but academic research and other sources meant that the real number is likely around 216,000, or even around 330,000 if one includes sexual abuse by lay members. The vast majority of the victims were male, according to the report. The authors cautioned that the margin of error could be several tens of thousands.

The numbers, said Sauvé, are “overwhelming and cannot remain without consequences.”

“The church failed to see, it failed to hear, and failed to pick up on the weak signals,” he said. “It failed to take the rigorous measures that were needed.”

Several cases have been forwarded to law enforcement officials, or — in cases where the window of prosecution had passed — to church officials. Overall, the report estimates the number of perpetrators to be at least around 3,000, with most of them being priests or clerics.

The commission’s conclusions are partially based on more than 6,000 testimonies, including from victims and witnesses.

“You’re coming back from hell,” victims’ representative François Devaux told commission members during a presentation of the report on Tuesday.

Then, appearing to address church representatives, he said: “You have to pay for all those crimes.”

“You are a disgrace to our humanity,” he added.

Earlier this year, commission leader Sauvé put the possible number of child victims at more than 10,000, but cautioned at the time that the estimate could rise.

“The big question for us is: How many victims came forward? Is it 25 percent? Ten percent, 5 percent or less?” Sauvé told journalists at the time. “Their stories are a true memorial of pain. Entire lives have been devastated,” he said.

Across the church, decades of abuse revelations — about the crimes of both parish priests and high-ranking cardinals — have gradually eroded trust in the religion while causing an ongoing crisis for the Vatican and the pope.

As part of dealing with the scourge, Francis has written letters of apology, gathered bishops at the Vatican, and drawn up new rules for responding to accusations. But the church has also, at times, been left scrambling — as the consequences of the abuse crisis ripple beyond the Vatican’s control.

Anger in the aftermath of Germany’s 2018 abuse inquiry, for instance, has set off an extraordinary reckoning. Bishops, in meetings in the wake of the abuse report, have opened tensions with the Vatican by signaling their willingness to reexamine some of the church’s central stances on priestly celibacy and sexuality. German bishops days ago called for the church to bless same-sex marriage — a call that flies in the face of a Vatican ban.

Bishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, the head of the French Catholic bishops’ conference, described feeling overwhelmed by the number of victims, and called the scale of the abuse “staggering.”

“I express my shame, my fear, my determination to act,” the bishop said.

About 60 percent of French adults identify as Catholic, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted from 2015 to 2017. But the exact number of practicing Catholics remains difficult to ascertain because of France’s strict limits on collecting ethnic or religious data.

The same limitations make it hard to track the impact of abuse scandals on church attendance in France. Some other European countries have experienced dramatic drops in membership.

The report released Tuesday identified several possible measures to address the church’s institutional failures, including increased supervision of priests and clerics and compensation for the victims.

“Compensation is not a gift, it’s something that is owed,” Sauvé said Tuesday.

Victims in France have complained about a lack of action to prosecute abuse by priests — a problem they say has only begun to improve in recent years. Sauvé said Tuesday that 2015 and 2016 marked a change in attitudes in the French Catholic Church

In response to the scandals, the Catholic Church pledged more transparency. The Vatican also last year published new guidelines for bishops, directing them not to dismiss accusations even if they appear vague or initially dubious. Victims’ organizations have argued that those changes are not far-ranging enough.

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Historic gathering with bland agenda unlikely to stem decay in the Catholic Church

The number of Catholics in Australia is in decline.

By Paul Collins

Like it or not, Catholicism is still enormously influential in Australia. It is Australia’s largest non-government employer through its schools, hospitals and aged care with around 230,000 people working directly for the church. It also runs many voluntary organisations, like the Saint Vincent de Paul Society with some 20,700 members and 41,150 volunteers with a huge impact on social welfare.

Despite this, Catholicism’s reputation has been effectively trashed in the media and wider community by the sexual abuse crisis and church leaders’ appalling, long-term failure to deal decisively with clerical abusers. The revelations of the royal commission reinforced the church’s toxic reputation.

The result: people are abandoning Catholicism in droves. The percentage of self-confessed Catholics in the population has dropped from 27 per cent in 2001 to 22.6 per cent in the 2016 census. Of the 5.3 million Catholics in 2106, only 11.8 per cent attended Mass regularly.

In an attempt to respond, Australia’s 46 bishops are gathering with 99 invited priests, 25 religious sisters and around 110 laypeople from across Australia in a Plenary Council in early October to try to sort out the church’s future.

To prepare for the plenary, a nationwide consultation was held with Australian Catholics. The response was enormous: more than 222,000 people participated, with 17,457 written submissions from groups and individuals. Issues emerging from the consultation focused around clerical control, lack of leadership, accountability, marginalisation of laypeople in decision making, election of bishops, gender and sexual issues, ministry, especially that of women, married priests, the church’s role in a secular culture and relationships with the wider community.

But that’s where democracy and consultation ended. The plenary organisers watered down these issues into a 69-page, bland, cautious document lacking any sense of crisis, written by an archbishop, a priest and two laypeople, entitled Continuing the Journey.

A victim of historic sex abuse by a WA priest has been awarded a massive payout.

This document constitutes the agenda for the plenary. It doesn’t reflect community concerns and the hard questions expressed in the consultations, but replaces them with generic, vague and frustratingly generalised concerns like “prayer”, “conversion”, “formation”, “structures”, “institutions”, and “governance”. This rhetoric doesn’t encourage discussion of the practical and hard questions that the church faces and understandably many committed Catholics have already lost faith in the plenary process.

The plenary’s first session meets next Sunday. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, it will employ a “multi-modal” format, combining in-person and online engagement. A second session will meet in October 2022. Bishops alone will have a deliberative vote. It will be their conclusions that go to the Vatican for approval and given the snail’s pace of Rome, it’ll be 2024 before anything practical begins.

Australia is an object lesson in what not to do when planning church renewal. Don’t go the way that gets you caught-up in a morass of church law and hands over all decision-making power to bishops, not all of whom, it is clear, are really committed to the plenary process, let alone to reforming the church. The fundamental mistake was using a church law-regulated plenary process as the way of confronting Catholicism’s woes. The suspicion is that the bishops chose this precisely because it was tightly controlled by law, allowing them to manage it.

It would have been much better to have had a less-structured national assembly, where a variety of views could be expressed freely, and indicative votes could show what the local Catholic community wanted, leading to concrete actions. While Catholicism remains very influential in Australia through its ministries, the number of active Catholics continues to shrink and the church is increasingly a hollowed-out institution. It’s unlikely that the Plenary Council will do much to halt that decay.

That is unless the bishops put aside their clerical habits and let the faithful in the pews have a much greater say.

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