PARIS — Clergy members in the Roman Catholic Church in France sexually abused more than 200,000 minors over the past seven decades, according to an estimate published on Tuesday by an independent commission that concluded the problem was far more pervasive and systematic than previously known.
The much-anticipated 2,500-page report by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church laid out in detail how the church hierarchy had repeatedly silenced the victims and failed to report or discipline the clergy members involved.
“The church failed to see or hear, failed to pick up on the weak signals, failed to take the rigorous measures that were necessary,” Jean-Marc Sauvé, the commission president, said at a news conference in Paris on Tuesday. For years, the church showed a “deep, total and even cruel indifference toward victims,” he added.
There has been a growing reckoning with sexual abuse in the church in France after a series of high-profile scandals. The investigative commission was set up in 2018 at the request of the Catholic Church in France in response to growing criticism of its handling of such scandals.
Meticulously compiled over the past three years by independent experts, the findings were the most extensive account to date of the scope of sexual abuse by clergy in the country, especially of children and other vulnerable people.
This followed similar efforts in recent years to disclose or document sexual abuse allegations against Roman Catholic clergy members in Australia, Germany, Ireland, Poland, the United States and other countries as the church continues to grapple with the devastation wrought by decades of sexual abuse scandals.
About 216,000 minors have been abused by clergy members in France since 1950, according to an estimate by the commission — a figure that it said reached 330,000 after including perpetrators who either worked for the church or were affiliated with it as laypersons, such as Boy Scout organizers or Catholic school staff.
The commission also estimated that there had been at least 2,900 perpetrators of sexual abuse among clergy members over the past 70 years.
Mr. Sauvé said that those numbers, while estimates, where “damning” and reflected a “systemic” failing by the church.
Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, the archbishop of Reims and the president of the Bishop’s Conference of France, called the commission’s findings alarming and expressed his shame, adding that he was determined to act.
“Their voice moves us deeply. Their number overwhelms us,” he said of the victims. “It goes beyond what we might have imagined,” he added. “Today, I want to ask for your forgiveness.”
Victims and experts welcomed the report, but noted that it was too early to tell whether the church would act on the commission’s recommendations.
“You are a disgrace to humanity,” François Devaux, co-founder of a victims association, said at the news conference on Tuesday, directly addressing the many Catholic officials in the auditorium.
Mr. Devaux founded La Parole Libérée, an association of victims of Bernard Preynat, a former priest who was accused of sexually assaulting dozens of Boy Scouts from the 1970s to the 1990s and who was convicted in a high-profile case last year.
“You must pay for all of these crimes,” Mr. Devaux said, emphasizing each word.
Mr. Sauvé selected 21 experts, including sociologists, historians, jurists, psychologists and theologians, who dug through church, state and news archives, held more than 250 hearings with witnesses and experts, and worked with demographic, polling and research institutes.
Crucially, they worked in close tandem with victims. Nearly 6,500 people, victims or those close to them, submitted oral or written testimony.
Many victims praised the commission for its thoroughness and hailed the report as a much-needed corrective after years of denial or minimizing from the church.
“Victims were worried that it might tone things down,” Mr. Devaux said of the report. Instead, he said, they did not skip a single question.
“Not only did they give a quantitative and qualitative account of the scope of sexual violence, they tried to understand where it came from — the institutional mechanisms,” he added.
Among the high-profile scandals that drew attention to the problem, the Preynat affair in particular stood out. It embroiled a cardinal in the French city of Lyon who was accused of failing to report the abuse. The case became a symbol of the church’s failings and its secretive approach to dealing with abuse, but it also signaled a shift in the willingness of victims to speak out and challenge church authorities.
“Before that, things were handled with shame,” said Isabelle de Gaulmyn, a top editor at La Croix, France’s leading Catholic newspaper, who wrote a book about the Preynat case. “And they said, ‘No, we were abused, we are going to hold people accountable, and we are going to do so openly,’” she added, referring to Mr. Preynat’s accusers.