French prosecutors said Tuesday they had opened a child abuse investigation into a cardinal after he publicly admitted to “reprehensible” acts with a 14-year-old girl in the 1980s.

Jean-Pierre Ricard, a retired bishop who was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2016, was named among 11 high-ranking clerics facing sexual abuse allegations in an announcement by the French Catholic Church on Monday.

In a message read at the bishops’ conference, Rickard admitted that “35 years ago, when I was a priest, I behaved reprehensibly towards a 14-year-old girl. There is no doubt that my conduct has had serious and lasting consequences for this individual.’

The most serious sex crimes in France, such as rape, usually have a 30-year statute of limitations, but the period for bringing charges can be extended if the victim was a minor at the time of the crime.

The maximum term for charges of sexual assault against a minor is usually 20 years from the date the victim turns 18.

“A preliminary investigation has been launched to verify the facts of this discovery,” Dominique Laurence, a prosecutor in the southern city of Marseille, where Ricardo said the abuse took place, told AFP.

Judicial sources in Marseille said the bishop of Nice alerted prosecutors on October 24 after Ricard told him he had “kissed” the teenage girl.

The 78-year-old man’s confession was received “as a shock” by fellow church leaders, Eric de Moulin-Beaufort, head of the French Bishops’ Conference, told reporters Monday at a meeting in the southwestern city of Lourdes. .

Richard served as bishop in Coutance, Montpellier and most recently in the western city of Bordeaux from 2001 to 2019, after which he retired.

“It’s good that he confessed and acknowledged it,” 70-year-old parishioner in Bordeaux Martine told AFP when asked about the reaction.

She said it was “a shame that in the Catholic religion we don’t allow priests, archbishops and other people to marry”.

– Other cases –

Another 10 bishops, either retired or still serving, face allegations of sexual abuse, de Moulin-Beaufort said on Monday in the latest revelations of sexual abuse at the top of the French church.

Last year, French Catholics were shocked by the results of an investigation that confirmed widespread abuse of minors by priests, deacons and lay members of the Church since the 1950s.

It found that 216,000 minors had been abused by clergy over the past seven decades – a figure that rose to 330,000 when claims against lay members of the Church, such as teachers in Catholic schools, were included.

This led French bishops to kneel together in penitence last November during a meeting in Lourdes, the spiritual home of French Catholics.

“It’s more than an earthquake,” Christine Pedotti, head of Temoignage Chretien, told AFP. “How can you believe the people who knelt in Lourdes a year ago?”

She said she feared another exodus would deepen the Catholic Church’s steady decline in France.

Other senior members of the French clergy have been embroiled in sexual abuse scandals over the past decade that have rocked the Catholic Church in countries from Ireland to Australia to the United States.

French bishop Michel Santier was sanctioned by the Vatican last October for “spiritual abuse that led to voyeurism involving two adult men.”

Another French cardinal, Philippe Barborin, was accused of covering up a priest who attacked dozens of scouts between 1986 and 1991.

In 2019, he was convicted of failing to report the abuse, but the conviction was overturned a year later.

In 2020, he left the office of cardinal, which is usually held for life.

Ricardo is expected to submit a resignation letter to the Pope.

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