LYON, France -- A Catholic cardinal and five other people went on trial Monday accused of covering up for a pedophile priest who abused Boy Scouts — France's most important church sex abuse case to date.
The case poses a new challenge to the Vatican, amid growing demands in overwhelmingly Catholic France for a reckoning with decades of sexual abuse by the clergy.
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, 68, appeared in a Lyon court Monday along with other senior church officials accused of failing to protect children from alleged abuse by the Rev. Bernard Preynat. The top Vatican official in charge of sex abuse cases, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, is among the accused — but won't appear in court because the Vatican invoked his diplomatic immunity.
Nine people who said the priest abused them in the 1970s and 1980s brought the case to court, and hope it marks a turning point in efforts to hold the French church hierarchy accountable for hushing up abuse. The victims say top clergy were aware of Preynat's actions for years, but allowed him to be in contact with children until his 2015 retirement.
Despite nationwide attention on the case, it may fall apart for legal reasons. Prosecutors initially threw out it out for insufficient evidence. Barbarin's lawyer says his client never obstructed justice because the statute of limitations had passed on the acts in question by the time Barbarin was informed.
"Accusing an innocent man doesn't advance a cause," lawyer Jean-Felix Luciani said.
After the judge had read out the lengthy accusations, Barbarin took the stand to maintain his innocence. He said he had encouraged one of the alleged victims to get in contact with other victims and "thanks to that" evidence against Preynat was able to be built.
If found guilty of failing to report the priest's actions, the defendants could face up to three years in prison and a 45,000-euro ($51,300) fine. Barbarin and some other defendants are also charged with failing to assist a person in peril.
The case is a new test for Pope Francis, whose blind spot on clergy sex abuse has threatened his legacy and thrown the Catholic hierarchy into a credibility crisis. Francis has praised Barbarin as "brave" and said French justice should take its course.
The priest Preynat, now in his 70s, wrote letters to some families confessing the abuse, and is to be tried separately on sexual violence charges involving several children.
One of his alleged victims, Alexandre Hezez, hailed the trial as an effort to "move justice forward." Hezez, 44, spoke to the cardinal directly about Preynat and is among those who brought the case to trial.
Barbarin sought counsel on how to handle abuse accusations against Preynat from the Vatican official, Cardinal Ladaria, who recommended disciplinary measures while "avoiding a public scandal."
"Alexandre (Hezez) knew that I supported his moves... I sent his testimony to Rome to find out what I should do with Father Preynat. Rome told me to remove him from his parish," Barbarin said Monday.
"I have never tried to hide facts and even less to cover these facts," he added.
Numerous child sex abuse claims have been made against Catholic clergy in France since the 1990s, but there hasn't been a huge wave like those seen in the U.S., Ireland or some other countries.
Barbarin is the highest-level French church figure accused of covering up abuse, and his case has cast a shadow over the diocese and the French Catholic Church. As a result, the Bishops of France last year created an ambitious commission aimed at shedding light on sexual abuse of minors in the church since 1950. A report is due in 2020.
But the issue is divisive. An outspoken French priest, the Rev. Pierre Vignon, started a petition urging Barbarin to resign that garnered more than 100,000 signatures last year — and Vignon says the effort has damaged his church career.
Barbarin is among the most powerful figures in the Catholic Church, one of some 200 cardinals worldwide and archbishop of Lyon since 2002. Multiple cardinals have been accused in recent years of shielding abusers or committing abuse themselves, from Pennsylvania to Australia to Chile.
Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.