On the eve of Easter weekend, the church has been shaken by yet another sex scandal, this time involving French priests.
A priest in Rouen, Normandy, in western France, faces possible legal charges for suspected sexual abuse of a minor nearly two decades ago. Wednesday, Father Jacques Gaimard of Rouen was placed under investigation, one step short of being formally charged, following a legal complaint brought by an alleged victim in February last year.
The abuse allegedly took place in 1992 and 1993.
"I'm busy right now and I'm not interested in talking to you," Father Gaimard said before hanging up the phone when ABC News called him today.
Father Gaimard, who also manages a Christian radio station in Normandy, is free but under police supervision.
According to his lawyer, Pierre Houppe, Father Gaimard has acknowledged the abuses, but minimized their importance. He said they took place during outings with the church.
"It is a sexual abuse, but we're only talking about caresses," Houppe told France 2 TV today. Four other plaintiffs are believed to have come forward alleging similar abuses, but these cases are considered too old to be tried under French law.
French police also questioned another priest from the same diocese of Rouen, Father Philippe Richir, priest of the Saint-Martin de Canteleu church, as part of an investigation into illegal possession of child pornography. Father Richir was questioned under the status of assisted witness. He has not been officially charged.
Investigators working on the Father Gaimard case decided to question Father Richir after they found some possibly compromising pictures during their probe.
Rouen Archbishop Sides with the Victims
The archbishop of Rouen, Jean-Charles Descubes, himself revealed the news about the two priests.
"If it happened in your family, how would you take the news?" a visibly affected Monsignor Descubes told reporters.
"My thought is first going to the victim who had to build his personality and his life with a suffering hidden for long years," the archbishop said yesterday in a press release, before adding that his thoughts were also with "our two colleagues to whom it is up for them to assume the consequences of their acts."
"It is up to the justice system to qualify the seriousness of these offenses which must be reproved and condemned" the archbishop said.
Monsignor Descubes also said the two priests have been temporarily suspended and that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican was investigating the cases.
Last Friday, France's Roman Catholic bishops said in a letter to Pope Benedict XVI that they were ashamed of priests who committed "abominable acts" by molesting and raping children.
The French bishops wrote that "those who carried out these acts have disfigured the church, wounded Christian communities and cast suspicion on all the members of the clergy." They said they "all feel shame and regret when faced with the abominable acts carried out by certain priests."
The bishops also expressed support for the pope, saying the sexual abuse "is being used in a campaign to attack you personally."
The revelation of the Rouen cases today is just the latest in a wave of sexual abuse allegations made by church members across France and Europe in recent weeks.
Last week, a priest in the small town of Marcilly-le-Hayer, southeast of Paris, was thrown into the spotlight when he was accused of sexual assault of a 22-year-old former choirboy and of possessing child pornography after French police found several pornographic photos of a child parishioner at the priest's home.
Preliminary charges of "sexual assault" and "illegal possession of images characteristic of child pornography" were issued last Friday, opening the way for a formal investigation. The priest was freed after questioning, but ordered to receive treatment and forbidden any contact with minors. He has also been moved to a new location during the probe.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.