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Another French bishop is accused of sexual abuse

By Matthieu Lasserre | France June 15, 2023

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Bishop Georges Colomb, head of the Catholic Diocese of La Rochelle in southwestern France the past seven years, has been accused of sexually assaulting a young adult male in 2013 when the prelate was the superior general of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP).

The 70-year-old bishop has denied the accusations, which were made public on June 13, and said he will ask Pope Francis to let him temporarily step aside from his administrative and pastoral duties to allow a full inquiry to take place.  

"I am stunned by these allegations, which I totally deny," said Colomb, who is the latest of at least 12 French bishops to be accused of sexual aggression in the past several months. "I will of course respond to the judicial authorities as soon as they wish to hear from me," he said in a message to Catholics of La Rochelle.

"I am aware that these accusations will cause serious disturbances and suffering for all of you. So that I can prepare my defense and so that our diocese can continue to live in communion and bear witness to the Good News, I have decided to ask the Holy Father to put me on the sideline for the time of the investigation, while remaining bishop of La Rochelle," he said.

An administrator is expected to be appointed soon to oversee the diocese during Bishop Colomb's absence.

Accusations of sexual assault

Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the French Bishops' Conference (CEF), urged people to respect the presumption of innocence for Bishop Colomb and for Bishop Gilles Reithinger. The latter, who is currently auxiliary bishop of Strasbourg, succeeded Colomb as the MEP superior. The 50-year-old Bishop Riethinger is accused of covering up his confree's abuse allegations.

"The accusations made are serious," said Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort on June 13. "Both categorically deny the facts described in the articles published this evening. The word of the complainants must be heard; the rights of the defense, respected," he said.

La Croix and two other French Catholic publications – La Vie and Famille Chrétienne – simultaneously revealed that a preliminary investigation had been opened by the Paris public prosecutor's office, following an admission by MEP officials that Columb had been accused of acts that could amount to sexual assault. The victim, Nicolas (not his real name), told the missionary society that he had been assaulted by the community's former superior general in 2013.

According to Nicolas' testimony, Colomb invited the young man to his apartment at MEP headquarters on rue de Bac in central Paris and offered him a massage before assaulting him. The victim says he reported the incident to Reithinger, who denies this. 

Archbishop Pascal Wintzer of Poitiers, the metropolitan of the territory that includes La Rochelle as a suffragan diocese, confirmed that Bishop Colomb is also facing a canonical investigation in addition to the state judicial inquiry.

"The confidentiality of the investigation is imperative," the archbishop said. 

"I reiterate my availability to all those who need to speak out. I trust our country's justice system to get to the bottom of this," he added. "I reiterate my concern for the complainant and the presumption of innocence to which Bishop Colomb is legitimately entitled."

Links to other abuse cases

In recent months, Bishop Colomb's name has been linked in various ways to other sexual abuse cases. Most serious is an allegation that when he was MEP superior general he put Aymeric de Salvert – a priest who was expelled from Japan in 2011 for having a consensual sexual relationship with another adult man – in charge of the missionary society's seminarians and young volunteers.

"It wouldn't have been honest to put him back in the parish, and I had just opened a vocational home for young people: I put him in charge of it. I didn't want him to lose face in front of his confreres," Bishop Colomb explained to La Croix last April after de Salvert was placed in police custody on suspicion of "aggravated rape" for events dating back to 2015.

Bishop Colomb also caused controversy in an interview with French Catholic Radio (RCF) last November when he seemed to make light of abuse charges against Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, the retired archbishop of Bordeaux.

"Cardinal Ricard was a 35-year-old priest in Bordeaux who kissed a 14-year-old girl," he declared. "There was no rape. He didn't even take her clothes off. He didn't undress her. He just kissed her," the bishop said.

He also put forward the hypothesis of "a relationship" or "a feeling of love on the part of the cardinal", contrasting that with that allegations of spiritual and sexual abuse that faced another French prelate last year, Bishop Michel Santier of Creteil. Bishop Colomb tried to walk that back two days later, by say that, "since we are dealing with minors, it is not possible to make a distinction according to the seriousness of the facts".


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