The head of France's Catholic bishops conference is asking forgiveness from the estimated 330,000 victims of child sex abuse by the Catholic church.

A groundbreaking report was released today after extensive research in France's first major reckoning with the issue. The 2,500-page document is based on information from church, judicial and police archives regarding sexual abuse. The investigation was carried out by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (Ciase).

The report says that approximately 216,000 children - mostly boys - have been sexually abused by clergy in the French Catholic Church since 1950. The head of Ciase says there were at least 2,900-3,200 abusers, and accused the Catholic church of showing a "cruel indifference towards the victims."

The inquiry found that the number of children abused in France could rise to 330,000, when taking into account abuses committed by lay members of the Church, such as teachers at Catholic schools, the BBC reports.

“It is an important step but it is not the end of the story, both for the Catholic church and for the rest of society,” says the president of Ciase, Jean-Marc Sauvé, as quoted by news agency France 24.

He stressed that “at the end of this extensive work we cannot claim to have the whole truth. More work is needed to deepen our knowledge of pedocriminality. But we have enough truth to speak with confidence and legitimacy.”

Sauvé also pointed out that, of those found guilty, “two-thirds are diocesan priests.” On the other hand, the founder of the association La Parole Libérée (The Liberated Word), François Devaux, said that “we are beginning to realize that the extent [of the issue] is massive”.

The President of the Conference of Bishops of France, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, says "we are appalled" at the conclusions of the report and the numbers of victims.

Ciase has urged compensation for victims and strong action from the church.

The Ciase report comes out in France three years after Pope Francis published a letter acknowledging the “pain of the victims” of sexual abuse and calling for “solidarity and commitment to a culture of protection and 'never again' to any type and form of abuse.”

The French Bishops' Conference then said it was ”ashamed” of  ”the atrocious acts” and pledged the ”relentless persecution of any abuse.” That same year, 120 bishops met in Lourdes, along with seven victims of sexual abuse, and approved the creation of the Commission that now publishes the report.

There has been similar investigations into the impact of pedophilia at the national level in other countries in recent years.

In Australia, tens of thousands of children have been abused since 1920; Germany reported that more than 3,600 children have been victims in the last seven decades; while in Spain, abuse by different religious orders, such as the Jesuits, has also come to light.


With files from The Canadian Press and Evangelical Focus.