France's Catholic church on Monday revealed that 11 former or serving French bishops have been accused of sexual violence or failing to report abuse cases, including a cardinal who confessed to assaulting a girl decades ago.
In a shock revelation, the president of the Bishops' Conference of France, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, told reporters that some of the high-ranking church officials faced criminal prosecution, or a church tribunal, or both.
Among them is Jean-Pierre Ricard, a long-standing bishop of Bordeaux who was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2016, and who had admitted to a "reprehensible" act on a 14-year-old, de Moulins-Beaufort said.
"Thirty-five years ago, when I was a priest, I behaved in a reprehensible way towards a girl of 14," Ricard wrote in a message to the Conference read out by de Moulins-Beaufort.
"There is no doubt that my behaviour caused serious and long-lasting consequences for that person," the cardinal said, adding that he had since asked the woman for forgiveness.
French bishops are meeting in Lourdes in southwestern France for their autumn conference to discuss ways to improve their communication and transparency regarding historical sex crime allegations against the clergy.
The public confession by Ricard, 78, was received "like a shock" by the bishops, de Moulins-Beaufort said.
Ricard, 78, was bishop in Coutances, Montpellier and finally Bordeaux between 2001 and 2019.
All of the accused will face either prosecution or church disciplinary procedures, said de Moulins-Beaufort, who is the archbishop of the northeastern city of Reims.
He said six former bishops had already been accused of sexual abuse "by the judiciary of our country, or by the judiciary of the church", one of whom had since died.
- 'Serious shortcomings' -
Ricard would now be added to that list, as would Michel Santier, who was sanctioned by the Vatican for "spiritual abuse having led to voyeurism involving two adult men".
Commenting on Santier's case, Moulins-Beaufort admitted that there had been "serious shortcomings and dysfunctioning at every level".
Two retired bishops were being investigated by the French judiciary, and were also the target of a church procedure.
The name of one other bishop had been flagged to the authorities, but prosecutors had not yet responded, while the Vatican had curtailed his duties.
One bishop, Andre Fort, was sentenced in 2018 to a suspended prison sentence of eight months.
Olivier Savignac, at the Parler et Revivre association which supports victims of sexual violence, told AFP he was "shaken" by Monday's revelations concerning a "dizzying" number of bishops.
"So many things are hidden. How many more will emerge?" he asked.
Savignac added: "The church only ever reacts when its back is to the wall."
Another association, Agir Pour Notre Eglise, who advocates church reform in the face of the accusations, urged the the bishops to come up "clear announcements" by the close of their meeting on Tuesday.
"It is with great sadness that we learn of all this," Alix Huon, a member of the association.
The church was rocked last year by the findings of an inquiry that confirmed widespread abuse of minors by priests, deacons and lay members of the Church dating from the 1950s.
It found that 216,000 minors had been abused by clergy over the past seven decades, a number that climbed to 330,000 when claims against lay members of the Church are included, such as teachers at Catholic schools.
The commission that produced the report denounced the "systemic character" of efforts to shield clergy from prosecution, and urged the Church to pay compensation to victims.
Ricard retired as bishop of Bordeaux in 2019 but he remains a cardinal, a position usually held for life.