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French Senate questions Catholic official on abuse by clergy

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FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2019 file photo, French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin waits for the start of his trial at the Lyon courthouse, central France. Representatives of France’s Catholic bishops group have been questioned by Senate lawmakers who are writing a report to combat pedophilia across all of the country’s institutions, it was announced Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. The report is being compiled as France’s most important church sex abuse trial yet appears set to end in acquittal in March for Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who is accused of protecting a pedophile priest.
 (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani, File)

PARIS (AP) — The spokesman for France's Catholic bishops' conference told lawmakers Tuesday the French church is working with authorities to uncover and eradicate child sex abuse after allegations made in recent years revealed the scope of the country's problem with pedophile priests.

Senators questioned the Rev. Olivier Ribadeau Dumas of the Conference of Bishops of France for a Senate commission that is preparing a report on pedophilia across French institutions.

It is being compiled as senior churchmen from every bishops' conference around the world are preparing to attend a Feb. 21-24 Vatican summit convened by Pope Francis to try to develop a universal response to the problem.

The commission's work also takes place as the trial of a prominent French cardinal accused of protecting a pedophile priest nears its end next month.

The Rev. Bernard Preynat confessed to abusing French Boy Scouts in the 1980s and 1990s, and his victims allege clergy in positions of authority covered up for him for years. One of the church leaders they accused of allowing Preynat to continue working with children until his 2015 retirement is Cardinal Philippe Barbarin.

During Tuesday's Senate hearing, Ribadeau Dumas defended the church's response to the Preynat revelations and the accusations against the cardinal. He said it created groups to help encourage victims of clergy abuse to come forward and a website to identify cases.

"Every bishop is responsible for what happens in his diocese... We don't need to restate how scandalous any and all sexual abuse against minors and vulnerable people is," Ribadeau Dumas said.

Catholic officials have been interrogated by a variety of government-appointed panels, independent inquiries, U.N. committees, and investigative bodies over the years, but parliamentary investigations are rare.

The French Senate group, which expects to submit its report and recommendations in April, has less authority than was planned for another lawmaker initiative, a parliamentary commission to investigate pedophilia in the Catholic Church that was scrapped in the fall.

Australia has carried out a more sweeping investigation than in France, in the form of a yearslong Royal Commission inquiry — the highest form of investigation — into abuse in the Catholic Church and other institutions.

Barbarin's trial is expected to produce an acquittal. By the time the trial reached court in January, the statute of limitations had expired on some charges. Even the prosecutor argued against convicting the cardinal.

However, Barbarin had been dogged by criticism for a past comment in which he seemed to express relief that some accusations could no longer be prosecuted. .

"The majority of the facts, thanks to God, are lapsed," Barbarin told reporters in 2016.

A movie by French director Francois Ozon that depicted sexual abuse in the Catholic Church echoed Barbarin in its title, "Thanks to God."

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Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this story.

FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2019 file photo, French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin waits for the start of his trial at the Lyon courthouse, central France. Representatives of France’s Catholic bishops group have been questioned by Senate lawmakers who are writing a report to combat pedophilia across all of the country’s institutions, it was announced Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. The report is being compiled as France’s most important church sex abuse trial yet appears set to end in acquittal in March for Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who is accused of protecting a pedophile priest.
 (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2019 file photo, French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin waits for the start of his trial at the Lyon courthouse, central France. Representatives of France’s Catholic bishops group have been questioned by Senate lawmakers who are writing a report to combat pedophilia across all of the country’s institutions, it was announced Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. The report is being compiled as France’s most important church sex abuse trial yet appears set to end in acquittal in March for Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who is accused of protecting a pedophile priest. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani, File)