PARIS — A high-profile Catholic cardinal was found guilty by a French court on Thursday of covering up decades-old sexual abuse by a priest in his diocese, a surprise victory for the priest’s accusers, who had forced the case to trial after it was previously dropped by investigating prosecutors.
The cardinal, Philippe Barbarin, 68, archbishop of Lyon, was convicted of failing to report child abuse to the authorities after parishioners accused the priest, the Rev. Bernard Preynat, of sexually abusing dozens of Boy Scouts in the region in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Cardinal Barbarin received a six-month suspended prison sentence from the court. He had faced up to three years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros, nearly $51,000. His lawyers said they would appeal the conviction.
The cardinal had always denied that there had been a cover-up, arguing that the victims were adults when he learned of the abuse and that it was not his place to go to the authorities on their behalf.
At the trial, he said he had even encouraged one of Father Preynat’s accusers to get in touch with other victims, and he stressed that he had followed the Vatican’s instructions in dealing with the case.
Prosecutors had dropped the charges in 2016 after an investigation, but nine of Father Preynat’s accusers used a special procedure to force the cardinal and employees of the diocese to stand trial.
Father Preynat was a Boy Scout leader in Lyon from 1972 to 1991. He admitted to some sexual abuse in letters to the families of the victims. He was criminally charged in 2016 after a separate investigation, and could stand trial this year.
The accusers said that Cardinal Barbarin had been slow to take action after he learned about the abuse by Father Preynat, who was removed from office only in August 2015, years after the first allegations against him surfaced and months after the cardinal was approached by one of the priest’s accusers.
Victims also argued that it was the cardinal’s legal responsibility to warn the French authorities even though the abuse had occurred decades ago, on his predecessors’ watch.
The plaintiffs have expressed satisfaction that the case has drawn wide attention in France to the problem of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, which has faced a crisis over the issue around the globe.
Last year, the bishops’ conference of France created an independent commission to shed light on sexual abuse in the French clergy. A report is expected in 2021.
Philippe Barbarin, one of the most well-known Catholic figures in France, became cardinal of the Lyon Diocese in 2002. He is an outspoken and media-savvy conservative who publicly denounced the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2013 and is heavily involved in interreligious dialogue.
But accusations that he had hidden abuse by Father Preynat put a dent in that image. One Catholic priest from southeastern France even started an online petition asking Cardinal Barbarin to step down. By Thursday, it had been signed by more than 100,000 people.
At the heart of the Preynat case were questions about exactly when Cardinal Barbarin become aware of the accusations.
In 2014, the cardinal was contacted by a parishioner and former Boy Scout who said he had been abused by Father Preynat and was disturbed to learn that the priest was still officiating and in contact with children. Father Preynat was removed from office the following year, and charged in a criminal investigation in early 2016.
But Cardinal Barbarin acknowledged several years ago in an interview with the newspaper La Croix that he had first heard rumors about the priest “around 2007-2008” and that in 2010 he had personally questioned the priest and left him in office after receiving assurances that no abuse had occurred since 1991.
In interviews and in court, Cardinal Barbarin said he had believed the priest and that he had sought advice from Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, who at the time was secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican doctrinal watchdog that handles sexual abuse cases.
The Vatican refused to let Cardinal Ladaria testify despite a court summons. Plaintiffs had accused him of complicity after a 2015 letter showed that he had told Cardinal Barbarin to discipline Father Preynat and keep him away from children “while avoiding any public scandal.”
In a similar case in 2018, André Fort, the bishop of Orléans, a town in north-central France, was given an eight-month suspended prison sentence for failing to report sexual abuse by a priest under his purview.
During the cardinal’s trial, which began in January, church officials stressed that they had welcomed the opportunity to listen to the victims, acknowledging that they had sometimes failed to heed past warnings.
“Thank you for shaking up the church, because there are dysfunctions, there are difficulties, we need to change,” Emmanuel Gobilliard, a bishop in Lyon, said at the time. “At the diocese, we are here for people, not to defend ourselves.”
A movie about the case, “By the Grace of God,” directed by François Ozon, won the runner-up prize at the Berlin International Film Festival last month. The title refers to a 2016 news conference by Cardinal Barbarin during which he said, “Most of the facts, by the grace of God, are outside the statute of limitations.”
Father Preynat had filed a lawsuit trying to delay the film’s release in France last month, arguing that it was detrimental to his presumption of innocence ahead of his trial. But the lawsuit was dismissed, as was a second one by Régine Maire, a former employee of the Lyon Diocese who stood trial alongside the cardinal.
Ms. Maire wanted her name struck from the movie. She is portrayed by an actress but her full name is used, as are those of Cardinal Barbarin and Father Preynat, whereas the victims’ last names were changed.