The shocking testimony of Bernard and his victims is dealing another blow to the French Catholic Church as it reckons with sexual abuses that were long covered up
The church supervisor at the seminary where priest Bernard Preynat's started training as a teen for his career as a priest was one of the first people to notice Bernard's unhealthy obsession for young boys.
After a two-year church-imposed course of psychotherapy, Bernard was still ordained into the priesthood. This chance, the first of many, to keep him away from children was spurned by the church hierarchy, which instead consistently, and successfully, long kept his abuses under wraps.
"At 14, 15 years old, I became interested in the youngest boys and the supervisor summoned me to tell me that I was abnormal and sick," the self-confessed child abuser said at his trial in France this past week, reports Yahoo! News.
Bernard claimed that he explained his statement to the bishop.
Now, at Bernard's trial in the city of Lyon, a fuller picture of the damage he inflicted on numerous boys and their families is surfacing. Four days of hearings also gave a long-overdue airing to the enabling role played by French church officials.
Aware of his abuses, Lyon cardinals told him to stop but did not report him to the police, Bernard said.
"Had the church sidelined me earlier, I would have stopped earlier," the 74-year-old testified.
Only last July, about 40 years after parents first wrote to the Lyon diocese to raise alarm about the priest. And Bernard was finally defrocked. He told the court that he cannot recall exactly how many boys he abused but estimated their number at no fewer than 75.
The shocking testimony of Bernard and his victims is dealing another blow to the French Catholic Church as it reckons with sexual abuses that were long covered up.
Bernard may face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of sexually abusing minors in what is France's biggest clergy sex abuse trial to date. The prosecution asked for a sentence not less than eight years. A verdict is expected for March 16.
For victims, the trial has reinforced suspicions that had church officials acted far sooner, they might have been spared terrifying boyhood memories of being sexually abused. In court, they recalled how Bernard smelled of cigars and panted as he pressed his belly against them.
"This trial shows that supervisors in the hierarchy were aware. We can see there was a lid over the diocese," said Pierre-Emmanuel Germain-Thill, one of Bernard's victims who says his life was turned upside down by abuse he suffered.
Bernard said the psychotherapy the church made him undergo from 1967-1968 as a condition for being able to continue training for the priesthood quickly proved to be a failure.
"I thought I was cured after my therapy," Bernard confessed.
"I was disappointed because I started again with the kids. After that, no other member of the church encouraged me to do another one."
His ordination in 1972 gave him both regular access to boys as he ran a scout group, and status to win the trust of unsuspecting parents.
He testified that while working as their scout chaplain, he abused up to two boys "almost every weekend" from 1970 to 1990 and as many as four or five a week when he led one-week scout camps.
The first Lyon cardinal to tell him to stop was Alexandre Renard, in 1978, after parents sent a letter to the diocese, Bernard informed. However, he was not removed from his church in the Lyon suburb of Sainte-Foy-les-Lyons and was left free to continue managing the scout group he had started. Alexandre died in 1983.
More complaints from parents led to another summons in 1982 from the Lyon diocese, then led by Cardinal Albert Decourtray.
"I was warned by the hierarchy of the impact these acts could have in the media," Bernard said.
With this, he was sent back to work.
Another complaint followed in 1985, and was again suppressed, Bernard testified.
The church finally pulled him away from Lyon and his scout group in 1991, when parents were threatening to go public.
Bernard says he swore then to Cardinal Albert that he would not touch any more children, and no other victims have come forward saying he abused them after 1991.
But Bernard also testified that the cardinal seemed uninterested in finding out exactly how much damage the priest had done during two decades of abuse.
"I told him that it was a long story, the drama of my life," Bernard said.
"He made a movement with his arm so that I would not tell him the facts."
Cardinal Albert died in 1994.
Bernard further confessed that his acquaintances concealed his abuses, too.
In a related case that reverberated all the way to the Vatican, Lyon Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was convicted in March, accused of covering up for Bernard's actions. Philippe tried to resign, but Pope Francis refused to accept it until the appeals process is complete. An appeals court ruling is expected on January 30.
After six months on the sidelines living with nuns, Preynat was given another parish in the Lyon countryside where he quietly ministered until 2015.
But his abuses were not forgotten - either by his victims or the church.
Bernard said that in 2001 he was summoned again by Lyon's cardinal, then Louis-Marie Bille, who wanted to know whether his abuses were too old to be prosecuted.
"I was received for 10 minutes. He sent me to see a lawyer." Bernard testified.
Bille died in 2002, replaced by Cardinal Philippe.
Aside from church superiors, Bernard said he also systematically spoke about his behavior in the confessional.
"I always confessed my faults," he said. "Every time the confessor gave me absolution and urged me not to start again. A month later, I would start again."