The hidden sex abuse cases at a Franco Swiss Catholic priest fraternity

A Mediapart investigation carried out in partnership with Swedish television station SVT1 and British newspaper The Guardian reveals how a fundamentalist Catholic society covered up several cases of priests accused of sexual assaults. The Society of Saint Pius X also regularly sends offenders to a discreet ‘gilded prison’ tucked away in the French Alps. Mathieu Martiniere, Mathieu Périsse, Daphné Gastaldi and Ali Fegan report.

By Mathieu Martiniere, Daphné Gastaldi, Mathieu Périsse

This article was published in cooperation with European Press Prize.

“Go, go, you’ve got no right to be here. It’s private property!” In front of the camera, Father Philippe Peignot unceremoniously pushes the journalist. The team from Uppdrag granskning,an investigative programme from Swedish television station SVT1, had been looking for the fundamentalist priest for months. On this particular Sunday, November 20th, 2016, the journalists had found him holding mass, surrounded by choir boys in white lace surplices, in a chapel at Espiet near Bordeaux in south-west France.

At the end of the ceremony the journalist Ali Fegan and his team tried to approach the abbot. Why was he still officiating around young people when he was accused of paedophile acts? Father Peignot lost his temper, and hit out at the “propaganda” campaign against him. The tension was palpable. Someone tried to seize the camera. Zealous parishioners, loyal to the priest, decided to detain the foreign journalists for close to two hours, enough time for their car tyres to be punctured and for the gendarmes to be called.

Once they had arrived the officers freed the journalists but forced the cameraman to erase the film they had taken. It was only thanks to the presence of another camera that the images were saved. This video shows once again the impunity that applies in the case of Father Peignot. This priest is one of 32 cases recorded during this investigation in which the activities of aggressors have been covered up by their hierarchy amid the ‘universe of silence’ that reigns in sections of the Catholic Church. The priest, who is now part of a breakaway movement, had for many years belonged to the Society of Saint Pius X. Its leader, Swiss bishop Bernard Fellay, is among 25 Catholic bishops who have over the years failed to inform the authorities about accusations of sexual abuse concerning their clergy or officials.

Several scandals have raised question marks, in particular, over the code of silence that exists inside the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). For more than 30 years this society of fundamentalist priests has grown on the margins of the Catholic Church. Founded in Switzerland in 1970 in reaction to the opening up advocated by the Second Vatican Council, this fraternity has been in a state of schism with Rome since 1988. It was in that year that its founder, French Catholic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, ordained four bishops without the permission of Rome, leading to their excommunication.

“It’s certainly scandalous that this priest can continue to exercise a normal ministry, if that is the case”

Inside this traditional society, which is now on its way to a reconciliation with the Vatican, discretion is the order of the day. Despite his confessions in relation to events that took place at the end of the 1980s, the abbot Father Philippe Peignot was the subject of just one, belated, sentence under canon law. In 2014 the Society of Saint Pius X, of which he was still a member at the time, in fact banned him from exercising any ministry close to young people. In response the priest joined the dissident movement known as the ‘Resistance, which was also informed of the prohibitions to apply in relation to the priest. These bans were clearly not greatly respected.

When contacted by Mediapart, the Society of Saint Pius X pointed out that Father Peignot is no longer a member. “It’s certainly scandalous that this priest can continue to exercise a normal ministry, if that is the case. Father Peignot’s current superiors who have given him this ministry were, however, warned by us,” says Father Christophe Thouvenot, an abbot and the society’s secretary general.

However, well before Father Peignot’s recent departure from the Society of Saint Pius X, indeed from as early as 1991, successive superiors at the fraternity were informed about assaults carried out by him on at least three boys in Belgium and France at the end of the 1980s. But they never informed the judicial authorities. The society contented itself with moving the priest between France and Belgium. It took until 2009 before an internal procedure was triggered.

Father Thouvenot springs to the defence of the society’s actions – or inactions. “In the 1980s, and although it might be more than regrettable, both Rome and our society of apostolic life lacked defined canonical procedure and no protocol was in place to face up to such situations.” Nonetheless, in 2000 Bishop Fellay, who has been the society’s ‘superior general’ since 1994, and who was aware of Father Peignot’s dangerous nature, broke an initial measure that forbade the priest from exercising any ministry that was close to young people. “Rather than speaking of a ‘broken measure’ it would conform better with reality to speak of an ‘adjusted’ measure, confining this priest to the role of a simple chaplain, with no involvement with children,” says Father Thouvenot. But these measures were not respected by Father Peignot himself. According to a victim who has carried out their own investigation, the priest continued to work closely with a Scout group at Conflans-SainteHonorine to the north-west of Paris until 2002.

Officially, the residence at Montgardin is a “house of rest” dedicated to contemplation, prayer and study

It was only in 2009 that Bishop Fellay brought up the idea of a possible psychiatric monitoring of Father Peignot. This was not enough for one of his victims who decided to lodge a formal complaint with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the custodians of the Vatican’s morals and standards. A trial under canon law took place in 2010 at which Father Peignot was convicted at first instance. In 2014 the final verdict was delivered and confirmed by the CDF: the priest was banned from all work that involved contact with minors.

Unaware of the ongoing canon law procedure a victim, whom for these purposes Mediapart will call ‘André’, sought to make a formal complaint to the French justice system in 2012, having realised that Father Peignot had spent a long time working with young people. When questioned in 2012 the priest admitted to some assaults on minors. But the case was not proceeded with. At the end of 2016 the same victim made a new attempt that proved more fruitful. His formal complaint made at Roche-sur-Yon in western France for attempted rape and sexual assault on a minor of 15 led to the opening of a formal judicial investigation. This was more than 20 years after the first warnings about the priest.

‘The gilded prison’

Though his own experiences go back 30 years, André has forgotten nothing. “It spurs me on every day,” he says. “I want him to face justice. I find it hard to believe that he calmly spent nine years with the Scouts without leaving other victims.” Now, after numerous procedures, he can at last take legal action. “I’m relieved. This trial is going to be an ordeal but it’s a first step and I certainly intend to prove his guilt,” says André in a determined voice. “What’s shocking is to see the carelessness towards victims, who have been ridden roughshod over, and the negligence in relation to the risk of re-offending,” says André’s lawyer, Nelly Souron-Laporte. “The superiors knew that it wasn’t an isolated case, there were other victims. They were happy to move him. He was banned from working with young people for a while but he was quickly reinstated. I don’t see how one couldn’t be shocked.”

But according to Mediapart’s information, the mechanics of maintaining the silence that operates inside the Society of Saint Pius X was even more elaborate than has been outlined. Father Peignot was not simply moved between France and Belgium, he was also offered a place of penitence. The offer came in the summer of 2014 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had handed down its final verdict and the priest was banned from any ministry that involved contact with children. The Society of Saint Pius X decided to send the priest to Maison NotreDame, a house in the mountains at Montgardin near Gap in south-east France. But Abbot Peignot dug his heels in and refused this “house arrest”. His superior Bernard Fellay did not give up. In an internal letter, seen by Mediapart, the society’s secretary general said Bishop Fellay had spelt out to Abbot Peignot that “refusal to accept his place of residence as set out in the judgement would put in jeopardy his membership of our society”.

But what is this “place of residence” which forces a priest convicted of sexual assaults on minors to carry out penitence in the French Southern Alps, far from public gaze? Officially, the residence at Montgardin is a “house of rest” dedicated to contemplation, prayer and study. “The Society of Saint Pius X’s first house of this type in the world!” Abbot Jean-Luc Radier, Prior of Marseille, happily told the Dauphiné Libéré newspaper when the fraternity bought the property in 2011. The fraternity had carried out a discreet and “unheralded” move to the area, according to the newspaper at the time. Indeed, it was so discreet that not even the Bishop of Gap had been informed of it.

In reality, the Maison Notre-Dame at Montgardin is not a house of rest like any other. Inside the Society of Saint Pius X itself it is even referred to as a “gilded prison”. A source close to the fraternity says: “It’s a place of ‘penitence’, which among others takes in sexual predators.” André, the victim of Father Peignot, says: “Montgardin is in all likelihood a private prison.”

Our Swedish colleagues at SVT1, who visited the house in this isolated village in the Hautes-Alpes département or county, were able to confirm these statements. The Montgardin home seems to serve as a place of retreat for all priests in the society with a problem, sexual or not. That is the case with Father M., a French priest brought back from Australia for “immature” behaviour with children, in the words of the society’s hierarchy itself. Contacted by telephone, Father M. confirmed that he had been at Montgardin “from 2013 to 2015”. This was several years after those in charge at the society, aware of his behaviour towards children, had moved the priest from Australia to Ireland, then to France once more. “We go where our superiors tell us to go. You know, that’s how the Society works,” said Father M.

The role of the house at Montgardin was also confirmed by the fraternity’s secretary general, Christophe Thouvenot. “Some priests are sent there in penitence. It’s a common thing in the Church,” he writes. Without batting an eyelid he then refers to one of the figureheads of French nationalism, the writer Maurice Barrès. “If you’ve read La Colline Inspirée (‘The Sacred Hill’) by Barrès, you’ll remember that the story starts in a monastery, where two priests are staying follow a disciplinary measure imposed by their bishop.”

The case of another priest confirms the punitive nature of Notre-Dame house at Montgardin. In 2013 a French priest Father P. was formally encouraged to go to the Alpine residence after deep disagreements with the society’s superiors. Like Father Peignot, he refused to give way. In an official letter addressed to him, and seen by SVT1, the Society of Saint Pius X’s superior Bernard Fellay gave him an ultimatum. “Upon pain of dismissal from the priestly fraternity Saint Pius X” Father P. had to go to Montgardin “within 48 hours” and to “refrain from any new act of rebellion against the Society of Saint Pius X’s authorities”. The message is clear: go to Montgardin’s “gilded prison” or face definitive expulsion from the fraternity.

Rebellion against the authorities

However, a new way out exists for those in the Society who do not want to conform and get sent to Montgardin: the rebel movement mentioned earlier called “Resistance”. So those who choose not to head for Montgardin often join this dissident fraternity group, which was set up in 2012 by British Catholic bishop Richard Wiliamson. He is best-known for having been convicted by a German court in 2009 for Holocaust denial. That is the route that Father Peignot took and also Father P., the abbot who was in “rebellion against the authorities”. According to Mediapart’s colleagues at SVT1, the same path was also trodden by a British priest Father S., who was accused in 2006 of sexual abuse in France, and then moved to the United Kingdom by his superiors in the Society of Saint Pius X.

When contacted by the Swedish TV station Bishop Fellay insisted he had reported the facts of the case to the criminal court authorities at Mulhouse in eastern France, though he did not provide documentation to the Swedish journalists. However, when contacted by Mediapart the court clerk in Mulhouse stated that their records contained no report form, investigation or judgement relating to acts of a sexual nature concerning Father S. Removed from Britain, Father S. joined Resistance in 2014 in order to to make a clean break with his past at the Saint Pius X fraternity. According to the association AVREF, which helps victims of religious movements in Europe, the dissident group now has around a hundred priests across the world. According to The Guardian newspaper in Britain Richard Williamson’s disciples are apparently even more radical and more conservative than the members of the Society of Saint Pius X.

As for the clerics who have been accused of sexual abuse against minors, such as Father Peignot and Father S., several photographs in Mediapart’s possession show that they continue to celebrate mass to this day, sometimes in contact with children, in France and the United Kingdom and with complete impunity.

This article is part of an investigation. Also read part 1, part 2 and part 3 of the story.

Photo: Cloister. – Jorge Láscar / Flickr

Mediapart is an independent French online investigative and opinion journal created in 2008 by Edwy Plenel, former editor-in-chief of Le Monde. Mediapart is published in French, English and Spanish.

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