A French appeals court Thursday overturned a cardinal's conviction for shielding an alleged child-molesting priest in a case that fuelled accusations of a Catholic Church cover up of sex abuse by clerics.
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, was given a six-month suspended jail sentence last March for not reporting a priest in his diocese who had allegedly abused dozens of boy scouts in the 1980s and 1990s.
The appeals court in Lyon concluded that Barbarin should have reported priest Bernard Preynat to the authorities but ruled it did not hold him criminally liable for his lack of action.
Barbarin, 69, had been twice convicted of failing to report Preynat to the police: first in 2010 when the priest admitted a history of abuse to the cardinal, and again in 2014 when Alexandre Hezez – an alleged victim – told Barbarin what had happened to him.
"Cardinal Barbarin is innocent," Jean-Felix Luciani, a lawyer for the cleric claimed after Thursday's judgment.
"The court has recognised that the cardinal was telling the truth. He made mistakes. He admitted that. The Church certainly has made mistakes, but he is not the Church."
Hours after the verdict, Barbarin announced he would offer his resignation to the Pope, who would take time to consider it.
"Once again, I will place my office as Archbishop of Lyon in the hands of Pope Francis," he told journalists.
The Pope had refused Barbarin's resignation after his conviction last year, pending the outcome of the appeal.
"My thoughts go today, always, to the victims," declared the cardinal, adding his exoneration should allow the Church of Lyon "to turn the page and open a new chapter."
The Bishops' Conference of France assured Barbarin, who was not at court for the verdict, of its "fraternal communion".
The pope, meanwhile, "will make his decision known in due course," stated Matteo Bruni, the head of the Vatican's press centre.
Plaintiffs in the case said they would take the decision on appeal to a higher court.
Barbarin is the most senior French priest to be caught up in a global clerical paedophilia scandal which has seen clergy hauled before courts from Argentina to Australia.
He consistently denied the charges against him but stepped back from his duties after last year's conviction.
The priest he is accused of protecting, Preynat, has been defrocked and is awaiting a ruling on March 16 in his trial on sex abuse charges.
Preynat confessed during his trial this month to "caresses" he knew were forbidden, and admitted he got sexual pleasure from his acts with boy scouts at camps he supervised.
Barbarin, a staunch conservative who became archbishop of Lyon in 2002, has long been accused by victims' groups of turning a blind eye to decades of child abuse in his diocese which blighted many lives.
Investigators initially dropped the case against him in 2016 after concluding the allegations were either impossible to prove or had happened too long ago to be brought to court.
However, a group of victims succeeded in having the probe reopened, which led to Barbarin being put on trial.
He insisted he had "never tried to hide, let alone cover up, these horrible facts".
Nonetheless, the trial court ruled that he had chosen not to tell authorities of the abuse allegations "in order to preserve the institution to which he belongs".
The appeals judges agreed Thursday that Barbarin should have reported Preynat after his 2010 confession. Only his failure do so happened too long ago, under the statute of limitations, to be punishable now, they ruled.
They also found that he could not be held criminally liable for anything that flowed from his discussion with victim Hezez in 2014.
Hezez was by then an adult and nothing prevented him from filing a complaint against Preynat on his own account, the judges affirmed - upholding an argument of the defence.
"It is not up to the cardinal to report an offence in the place of a man who is not incapable of doing so himself," precised Luciani.
The court also found it "seriously objectionable from a moral point of view" that Preynat had been allowed to remain in contact with children for five years after he confessed the abuse to Barbarin.
Jean Boudot, a lawyer for victims, uttered there was a "strong feeling of disappointment" with the verdict.