November 29, 2021

the difficult journey of the members of the Sauvé Commission

One thousand two hundred emails and letters, trying stories of a few pages with thick files sometimes accompanied by legal or medical documents … In the summer of 2019, Sylvette Toche did not expect such a plunge into the unbearable. Appointed a few months earlier secretary general of Ciase, the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, she made it her mission to read, during her vacation, the avalanche of writings addressed to the commission, since the launch in June of the call for testimonies, while the professionals of the association France Victimes took care of the telephone calls.

→ BENCHMARKS. Sauvé Commission: role, members, functioning… What you need to know about Ciase

«I was about ten in the 1960s and at the time she says, it was common to say that priests fiddled with little boys, or incidentally little girls. But what I discovered in these letters… I was appalled. People have been sexually assaulted, then told their families, the Church, and notables, but no one believed them. I saw the person writing, I perceived the devastation behind these often very dignified, very modest stories. The most sober were often the most terrible.»

“All have played the game”

Revolt, revulsion, feeling of injustice. Away from the Catholic Church but attached to the message of Christ, the former head of audit at Aéroports de Paris is gradually undermined by what she discovers. To the point of wanting to stop? «I could have given them to someone else, but the idea didn’t cross my mind. I was getting to the heart of our subject. »

Far from being a brake on the work of Ciase, this confrontation with the distressing reality of abuses was a choice assumed from start to finish by the members of the commission. All these experts shared the conviction that the scientific investigation into this phenomenon of abuse in the Church could not do without their ability to let themselves be touched by what the victims had experienced. And instruct by their “Experiential knowledge”, according to Alice Casagrande, specialist in the fight against abuse. «All have played the game, says an expert from Ciase, and have invested considerable time and energy» – 26,000 hours of volunteering, according to the count established by the commission.

Craftsmen of the eagerly awaited report on the Church in France, these men and women from very diverse backgrounds, historians, sociologists, psychiatrists or theologians, believers or not, have thus allowed themselves to be struck, more or less brutally, to the point of living , for some, deep interior transformations. Whether over the hearings of victims, provided in pairs, during working sessions with representatives of victims’ associations associated with the reflection of the commission within a “mirror group”, or during public meetings organized during a Tour de France, from Orleans to Martinique. «Basically, we never stopped hearing, we listened to the victims until the end, until last summer ”, underlines Protestant lawyer Christine Lazerges, who personally participated in 35 hearings.

“We must save the Church soldier”

Behind a humor «of Parisian Jew in the third degree “, Jean-Pierre Rosenczveig affects the detachment of the child protection professional who has seen others. Judge for children for nearly thirty years, the former president of the tribunal de grande instance of Bobigny, in the northern suburbs of Paris, recognizes that he protects himself from the suffering of people – «mine is enough for me “ – especially since they have «no need in front of them a trembling judge». He admits all the same to have been «moved like everyone else by the “quality” of the pain endured by these people ».

« When you see a guy my age, 70-75 years old crying in front of you, after an hour and a half of an interview he asked for, you cannot be indifferent or not infer the violence inflicted on him. Sixty-five years later it’s like it was yesterday. » He himself participated in the working group responsible for evaluating the response given by the Church to these scandals. If he is angry with the lack of legal culture of the interviewed seminar trainers – «Having a poor mastery of French law themselves, how will they not put in difficulty those they train to be priests?» -, the one who presents himself as «the disbeliever of service “ has not moved a line since his commitment to Ciase: «We must save the Church soldier. “” We have already lost the Communist Party, if we lose the Church, we are lost. If this pillar breaks, Islamism and communitarianism will prevail. The Church has its place and must contribute to the advancement of society, but today, as soon as she talks about anything, we talk to her about ass. It must become legitimate again, account for its responsibilities for the past and assume its civic responsibility. »

A changed look

For a number of experts, unfamiliar with the subject, listening to victims is a shock. Many are struck in particular by the consequences of sexual assault on the lives of the victims, of whom they had heard about, but of which they took full measure by collecting these so intimate accounts. Especially the affective and sexual blockages which have sometimes stemmed entire lives. Astrid Kaptijn thus remains marked by this man who retreated for years before having a child, because it is often said that a victim risks becoming in turn an aggressor.

His outlook has changed on his discipline. Expert in canon law, former vice-rector of the University of Friborg in Switzerland, this Dutch academic knew the procedures, but especially on the side of the aggressor, for having been, moreover, the ecclesiastical lawyer of an abusive priest. It was quite another thing to discover them by listening for two hours to a victim who experienced this in his own flesh. The sometimes lively discussions with the other members of the Ciase, sometimes less knowledgeable of the Catholic Church, also made him aware of a “gap”, while in his perspective as a canonist and a Catholic, certain things seemed to be taken for granted, obvious. «In canonical trials, the victim has no place. Often, after being reported, they are not kept informed, and when the trial takes place, there is no specific role», she admits, now convinced that things can change and determined to contribute to it to its extent.

Even for the most experienced listening, these hearings have renewed their perspective on the trauma experienced by victims of sexual assault. Co-director of the National Resource and Resilience Center, Thierry Baubet, psychiatrist at Avicenne hospital, was particularly touched by these men and women who finally managed to speak «after a life in which they have kept themselves silent, thinking that there would never be anyone to understand them». Speaking out holds a transformational potential that continues to surprise this resilience specialist. As during this hearing where he is faced with a man of a certain age who, on several occasions, suggests his desire to have in front of him the priest who attacked him, 60 years earlier. «To tell him what? “, dares the psychiatrist.

→ CHRONOLOGY. Sexual Abuse in the Church: Key Dates of the Sauvé Commission

This question will gain ground, and some time later, the man will set out to find his attacker. The 90-year-old left the priesthood to get married. A meeting, correspondence, the question of forgiving or not will follow. “He kept us informed of all his steps, because this hearing had created, between him and the Ciase, a bond on which he leaned to finally achieve what he had wanted to do for a long time and to close this still open wound. “

“We had an internal dike: we are not there for ourselves”

The first hearings are trying but, most admit it, even after tens of hours of listening, it remains ” always so unimaginable “. What to hang on to hold on? «Of course, empathy facilitates the victim’s speech and we allow ourselves to do so. It happened to me to take my head in the hands or to hear Marion (Muller-Colard, Editor’s note.), Next to me, say “it’s not possible”Recalls Alice Casagrande. But we had an inner dike: we are not there for ourselves. “ The emotion will come later, for her who stands out ” revolted, sometimes frightened “. And deeply shaken in her faith.

Before Ciase, Alice Casagrande, baptized at the age of 9, began her days with the Gospel, went to mass every Sunday and followed retreats in silence. But when the pace of the hearings picked up, all of her experience as a practicing Catholic was found. «colonized, vampirized “ by this dark reality. With gray days, «slimy», a feeling of inner devastation. One day, a psychiatrist friend, seeing the state in which she is, puts words on what she experiences while speaking of «diffuse trauma ”. “The worst, in terms of traumatic activation, was Mass. At church, I found myself in the midst of assaults. If I saw a child, I told myself that such and such a victim heard was his age at the time of the facts… If I saw a place, I imagined that there had been a fellatio. If I saw a sacramental gesture, I would say to myself “that was just before”… » Is she in revolt against God? No, but Alice Casagrande finds herself speechless, unable to pray. “In a radical drying up of interiority. A spiritual dryness.»

A “battered” faith, and at the same time “enormous, magnificent”

Like other members of the Ciase, starting with its president Jean-Marc Sauvé, Alice Casagrande then felt the need to call on a therapist from the France Victimes association. His research work – a survey of around twenty priests and seminarians piloted in July and August – also contributed to a form of «repair “. La Ciase understands then that she cannot do without also listening to the way in which the clerics themselves have been impacted by the crisis. «These exchanges have recreated a possibility of dialogue, she testifies. The priest who tells you that he was insulted in the street… that puts a face, that undoes the evil in his uniform side. “

It is also, surprisingly, the meeting with a Muslim as well as a trip, at the end of the summer, to Morocco, in the midst of these believers called to prayer, who go «reactivate “ sa gone. «I was alone in the desert, under the stars, and I asked God to name each star with the names of the victims heard. “Lord, give them the name of each of these little ones”. These stars were beautiful and numerous… ”, she slips, her throat still tied with emotion. «I felt the need to entrust them to Him and it did me good. The inner emptiness has stopped. “ Her faith, she said is today «dented», and at the same time «huge, magnificent ”, inhabited by a tenfold determination to help Catholics, starting with her parish at the end of the street, to welcome the explosion of the report.

→ PODCAST. “Sexual abuse, why am I investigating the dark side of the Church”