PARIS - Lyon's archbishop, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin and five other figures are on trial on charges of failing to act against sexual abuse allegations targeting a priest in his diocese. This is the latest pedophilia scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Church before a key Vatican conference on sexual abuse.
The sexual abuse allegations date back to the 1980s and 1990s. They involve Father Bernard Preynat, a priest in France's Lyon diocese, who has admitted to wrongdoing and is due to go on trial later this year.
But one of country's most prominent clerics, Lyon's archbishop Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, is accused of covering up the abuse. If found guilty, he faces up to three years in jail and a $54,000 fine.
Barbarin denies the charges. He says he took action as soon as he found out about the sexual abuse allegations — many years later.
The archbishop did not comment publicly before his trial, but one of his lawyers says the cleric expects to be acquitted.
Barbarin reportedly sought advice about how to handle the allegations from a Vatican official who will not be present at the trial on grounds of diplomatic immunity.
Francis Devaux, who heads French victims' group "Freed Speech" [La Parole Liberee], told local TV what is most important about the case is that it was covered up for so long and that alleged victimizer Father Preynat was protected.
Devaux was the first alleged victim to go public, claiming in 2015 he was abused by Preynat, who was subsequently removed from his post. A year later, investigators dropped the case against the priest. But the victims' group carried on, ultimately succeeding in landing Barbarin and five others in court.
This is not the French Church's first sexual abuse scandal, but it is the highest profile one to date. It comes before a key Vatican meeting in February that Pope Francis says aims to shed full light on sex scandals and alleged cover ups by Catholic clergy.
The chair of Catholic reform group "We Are Church International," Colm Holmes, said Cardinal Barbarin's trial is an encouraging step. But he is disappointed in Pope Francis, who has praised Barbarin.
"He has backed the Cardinal all the way," he said, "but he has not listened to any of the victims.And now at last the victims will have their say when it comes to [the] court now."
Holmes said he is skeptical next month's Vatican meeting will lead to real church reform.
He also pointed to his native Ireland, one of a number of countries rocked by pedophilia scandals, and where church attendance has plummeted in recent decades.
"And that has happened in other countries as well, where people are so disappointed with the reaction of the hierarchy of the people in charge to the whole abuse scandal," he added.
A historically Catholic nation that is now staunchly secular, France has also seen emptying pews.
Last year, French bishops announced they would create an independent commission to investigate sexual abuse.A poll found most French Catholics support a parliamentary probe.