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French cardinal resigns after conviction for failing to act on sex abuse allegations

French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin said Thursday he will offer his resignation to Pope Francis, after a court found him guilty of failing to report allegations of sexual abuse of minors by a priest.

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin handed 6-month suspended sentence

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, said he will offer his resignation to Pope Francis, after a court found him guilty of failing to report allegations of sexual abuse of minors by a priest. (Emmanuel Foudrot/Reuters)

French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin said Thursday he will offer his resignation to Pope Francis, after a court found Barbarin guilty of failing to report allegations of sexual abuse of minors by a priest.

In a surprise decision Thursday, the Lyon court handed the Roman Catholic archbishop of Lyon a six-month suspended prison sentence for not reporting the facts between July 2014 and June 2015. 

In a brief statement to media, Barbarin said, "I have decided to go and see the Holy Father to offer him my resignation." He said he will meet Pope Francis "in a few days" and expressed his "compassion" for victims.

Barbarin is the highest-profile cleric to be caught up in the child sex abuse scandal inside the Catholic Church in France. 

Rev. Bernard Preynat's alleged victims said Barbarin and other church officials covered up for him for years, but the statute of limitations had expired on some charges and it was expected that the cardinal would be acquitted.

The prosecutor had also argued against convicting, saying there were no grounds to prove legal wrongdoing. 

Preynat has confessed to abusing boy scouts in the 1970s and '80s and will be tried separately.

Barbarin will appeal

In the court's decision, read by The Associated Press, magistrates wrote Barbarin "had the obligation to report" accusations because the accusers didn't request the ecclesiastic secrecy.

Alexandre Hezez, one of those who brought the case to trial, met Barbarin in November 2014 and kept informing him there were probably other victims. 

"Cardinal Barbarin never showed any doubt about the information," the court wrote.

The Saint-Jean Cathedral, foreground, and the Fourvière Basilica, top, are pictured in Lyon. Barbarin is the highest-profile cleric to be caught up in the child sex abuse scandal inside the Catholic Church in France. (Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press)

Barbarin was not at the court in Lyon for the verdict Thursday. His lawyer, Jean-Felix Luciani, said he will appeal.

"This is a decision that is not fair at the juridical level," he said. "We hope that at the next step, justice will be done."

The Vatican didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nine people who said the priest abused them brought the case against Barbarin to court.

"This is a victory that sends a strong signal to lots of victims and a signal to the church as well," said François Devaux, president of the association La Parole Libérée (Lift the Burden of Silence), a group of victims of Preynat.

"We see that no one is above the law. We have been heard by the court. This is the end of a long path."

The victims say top clergy had been aware of Preynat's actions since 1991, but allowed him to be in contact with children until his retirement in 2015.

Yves Sauvayre, a lawyer for some of Preynat's alleged victims, called the verdict "historic." 

"The cardinal is convicted because he didn't do what needed to be done," he said.

5 others acquitted

 Five other defendants were acquitted.  

In addition to Barbarin, an archbishop, a bishop, a priest and two other officials had been on trial. Another top Catholic official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, was among the accused, but didn't appear in court because the Vatican invoked his diplomatic immunity.

In emotional proceedings during the four-day trial in January, several men recounted their fear and shame after they were abused.

Christian Burdet, 53, recalled how Preynat forced him to go into his tent when he was a 10-year-old scout. Describing years of suffering, Burdet said he wanted to "understand how this system was put in place" and help other victims to speak out.

Preynat's trial is to be held by next year. The date has not been set yet. Only 13 cases out of an estimated total of 85 accusers will go to court, as the statute of limitations has expired for the others. 

The decision against Barbarin was handed down less than two weeks after the conviction of Cardinal George Pell, of Australia, for sexually abusing two youths. He too is appealing. 

And it comes amid a reckoning among rank-and-file Catholics of how church leaders around the globe allowed decades of sexual abuse and coverup to fester. The resulting crisis in confidence in the hierarchy sparked Francis's decision to convene church leaders from around the world for an extraordinary Vatican summit last month. 

Also last month, Francis defrocked the onetime leader of the American Catholic Church, ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, after a church investigation determined he sexually molested minors and adult men.

With files from Reuters

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