A court on Thursday found a French cardinal guilty of failing to report to authorities allegations of sexual abuse of minors by a priest, a surprise decision that alleged victims see as a victory for child protection and a strong signal to the Catholic Church.
The Lyon court handed Cardinal Philippe Barbarin a six-month suspended prison sentence for not reporting the cases in the period between July 2014 and June 2015.
Alleged victims of the Rev. Bernard Preynat claim Barbarin and other church officials covered up for him for years, but the statute of limitations had expired on some charges and even the victims had expected that the cardinal would be acquitted.
Five other defendants were acquitted.
Barbarin was not present at the Lyon court Thursday. His lawyer, Jean-Felix Luciani, said he will appeal.
“This is a decision that is not fair at the juridical level,” Luciani said. He added: “We hope that at the next step, justice will be done.”
The Vatican didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Preynat has confessed to abusing Boy Scouts in the 1970s and ’80s and will be tried separately.
Nine people who said the priest abused them brought the case against Barbarin to court.
“This is a victory that sends a strong signal to lots of victims and a signal to the church as well,” said Francois Devaux, president of the association “La Parole Liberee” (Lift the Burden of Silence), a group of victims of Preynat.
“We see that no one is above the law. We have been heard by the court. This is the end of a long path.”
A lawyer for some of Preynat’s alleged victims, Yves Sauvayre, called the verdict “historic.”
“The cardinal is convicted because he didn’t do what needed to be done,” he said.
The victims say top clergy had been aware of Preynat’s actions since 1991, but allowed him to be in contact with children until his 2015 retirement.
In addition to Barbarin, an archbishop, a bishop, a priest and two other officials had been on trial. Another top Catholic official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, was among the accused — but didn’t appear in court because the Vatican invoked his diplomatic immunity.
In emotional proceedings during the four-day trial in January, several men recounted their fear and shame after they were abused.
Christian Burdet, 53, recalled how Preynat forced him to go into his tent when he was a 10-year-old Scout.
Describing years of suffering, Burdet said he wanted to “understand how this system was put in place” and help other victims to speak out.
Preynat’s trial is to be held by next year. The date has not been set yet. Only 13 cases out of an estimated total of 85 alleged victims will go to court, as the statute of limitations has expired for the others.
Last month, French judges refused to block the release in French cinemas of a movie based on the scandal by French director Francois Ozon.