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Cardinal Philippe Barbarin convicted in France of Catholic Church sex abuse cover-up

Lyon archbishop, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, sits in a Lyon court to attend his trial, Jan. 7, 2019, charged with failing to report a priest who abused Boy Scouts. Getty

In a surprise decision in France's most important church sex abuse trial, a court on Thursday found top Catholic official Cardinal Philippe Barbarin guilty of failing to report to law enforcement accusations against a pedophile priest. The Lyon court handed Barbarin a six-month suspended prison sentence for not reporting the facts in the period between July 2014 and June 2015.

The Rev. Bernard Preynat's alleged victims said Barbarin and other church officials covered up for him for years, but the statute of limitations had expired on some charges and even the victims had expected that the cardinal would be acquitted.

The prosecutor had also argued against convicting, saying there were no grounds to prove legal wrongdoing.

The priest has confessed to abusing Boy Scouts in the 1970s and 80s and will be tried separately.

Barbarin, 68, testified that he was unjustly accused, saying, "I don't see what I am guilty of."

The Lyon diocese decided to keep Preynat on as a priest even after parents of one Boy Scout wrote a letter to the then-cardinal in 1991 describing abuse. The diocese took him away from the Boy Scouts and moved him to a different parish.

The victims accused Barbarin, who became archbishop of Lyon in 2002, of having allowed Preynat to continue serving as a priest in contact with children, despite years of rumors about his actions.

The case has been seen as yet another test for Pope Francis, whose handling of clergy sex abuse cases has threatened his legacy and thrown the Catholic hierarchy into a credibility crisis. Francis had praised Barbarin as "brave" and said French justice should take its course.  

Video shows Cardinal George Pell confronting abuse allegations in police interview 02:13

Barbarin's sentencing comes about a week after Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse, was convicted in Australia of molesting two choirboys moments after celebrating Mass. Pell was Pope Francis' top financial adviser until late last year and remained the Vatican's economy minister until even more recently.  

That conviction came weeks after the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had approved the expulsion from the priesthood of a former high-ranking American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, for sexual abuse of minors and adults.

All of these high-level convictions have come in the wake of a landmark summit with church leaders summoned to Rome by Francis for a tutorial on preventing clergy sexual abuse and protecting children from predator priests. Reaction to the long-awaited summit from abuse victims and their families was unenthusiastic.

Three clergy abuse survivors who attended the summit told CBS News immediately after the gathering that they still wanted to know why the Church had not laid out concrete steps to stop child sex abuse. "CBS This Morning" followed their fight for justice all the way from the U.S. to Rome, where they attended the summit and demanded a zero-tolerance policy for abuse.

Clergy abuse survivors sound off on Vatican summit 02:58

Abuse survivor Mary Dispenza, a former nun, told CBS News correspondent Nikki Battiste she didn't "think our children are any safer now than four days ago, by what I heard." In a word, Dispenza called the summit "disappointing."

Shaun Dougherty, who was molested by a teacher at a Catholic grade school when he was 10, used a different word: "shortfall."

Perhaps slightly more generous, Pennsylvania State Legislator Mark Rozzi, who said his priest raped him when he was 13 years old, characterized it as "a start."

"I haven't heard any plan," Dougherty said, adding that the summit was, "a recognition of what we already knew. It seems like the Church finally gets it. Now that you do understand that this is happening and you've said your bishops are comparable – where's the next step? Where is the action plan?"

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