Paris: French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Tuesday urged a cardinal, accused of covering up the sexual abuse of young boys by a priest, to "take responsibility" in a case which has deeply embarrassed the French Church.
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin hit back, insisting at a press conference: "I have never covered up paedophilia."
The latest abuse scandal to hit the Catholic Church erupted when priest Bernard Preynat was charged in January, after victims came forward with claims he had sexually abused Scouts between 1986 and 1991.
Prosecutors say he has admitted the charges.
The victims have filed complaints against several senior officials in the Lyon diocese in eastern France, including Lyon archbishop Barbarin, accusing them of being aware of the abuse but failing to report the priest.
Valls told BFM TV that without seeking to take the place of the Church or judges looking at the case, "The only message I have... is that (Barbarin) must take responsibility, speak and act."
Barbarin has argued he was not archbishop at the time when the first complaints emerged against Preynat who was briefly suspended and then moved to another parish.
Accusations were made against Preynat only when a victim who was allegedly abused in the 1980s realised in 2015 that the priest was still in service. Other victims have since come forward.
The case recalls the recent Oscar-winning film "Spotlight", which highlighted how the Church transferred deviant priests between parishes in Boston in the United States.
While this practice is no longer commonplace, the French case raises the question of how deep Church authorities should dig into abuse cases lurking in their past.
'Yes, I believed him'
Barbarin has said he learned of Preynat's "behaviours" in 2007 or 2008, and met with him "to ask if, since 1991, anything had happened; he assured me there had been absolutely nothing.
"Some blame me for believing him... Yes, I believed him," Barbarin said in an interview with Catholic newspaper La Croix.
The diocese removed Preynat from service in May 2015.
The Vatican has backed the cardinal, saying he had shown "a great deal of responsibility" in dealing with the matter.
But as the scandal took centre-stage at a meeting of France's 120 bishops in Lourdes, southwestern France, new accusations emerged against Barbarin.
An alleged victim pressed new charges against the cardinal, saying he was sexually abused at the age of 16 by another Lyon priest who was still in service.
The man, now 42, pressed charges against the priest in 2009, but the case could not go forward because of a statute of limitations.
He told Le Figaro newspaper that he met with Barbarin, who allegedly admitted that the priest involved had a problem he had been sentenced to a month in prison in 2000 for exhibitionism and apologised.
But nothing was done to remove the priest from service.
The scandal has been extremely embarrassing for the Church in France, which has worked to harden its stance against predator priests since Bishop Pierre Pican was convicted in 2001 for failing to report abuse.
"The rules, best practices and prevention measures that we have put in place remain unequivocal," said Georges Pontier, archbishop of Marseille and head of the French Catholic Church.
'The culture has really changed'
The Church continues to be dogged by cases of priests abusing young children and past cover-ups, despite Pope Francis' promise of a crackdown.
Barbarin's case, as well as a scandal in Australia that has seen Cardinal George Pell, the pope's powerful finance minister, accused of protecting paedophile priests, have been used as examples that a culture of silence persists.
But an editorial in Le Figaro argued that decades-old abuse cases do not necessarily reflect how the Church reacts today.
"Most dioceses in the world now get rid of any accused priest, and demand that he report to the courts... The culture has really changed in the Church," the editorial read.
Charles Scicluna, a former senior official in the Vatican's justice department, said: "Today it is no longer possible that a priest accused of paedophilia is simply moved to another parish."...