At least 3,000 children have fallen victims to sex abuse in the French Catholic Church since 1950, a commission set up to examine claims estimate, also adding that it could be more than stated.
The commission’s president Jean-Marc Sauve said preliminary figures suggested some 1,500 clergy and other Church officials carried out the abuse.
The commission was set up last June at the request of French bishops after a series of paedophilia cases that rocked the Church in France and abroad.
A hotline urging victims to come forward has received 5,300 calls over the past year, Sauve told journalists in a video conference.
The number of estimated victims represents more than 40 cases per year on average over the past seven decades.
“I am deeply convinced that there are many more victims,” Sauve said.
“What we do not know is how to consolidate these two sources” of potential cases — the hotline and the commission’s own inquiries, he said.
The call for witnesses has been extended to October 31 and reviews of Church archives have resumed after being suspended during France’s coronavirus lockdown.
Pope Francis has vowed to confront criminal offences in the Church’s ranks, including several cases in which top officials knew of sexual assault but failed to inform the authorities.
Last year, Francis passed a measure obliging those with knowledge of child sexual abuse to report it to their superiors, a move that was expected to bring numerous new cases to light.
The commission headed by Sauve, a high-ranking civil servant, includes legal experts, doctors, historians, sociologists, and theologians.
It is expected to produce a final report next year with recommendations on how to prevent abuse.
Victims’ associations have applauded the French Church’s pledge of transparency, having long accused its senior officials of covering up paedophilia cases to protect priests from prosecution.
In the most recent high-profile case, a defrocked Catholic priest was given a five-year jail term in March for sexually abusing boy scouts in his care several decades ago.
Bernard Preynat, 75, had confessed at his trial in the southeastern city of Lyon to “caresses” he knew were forbidden after victims testified of the abuses they suffered at his hands.
He faulted the Church hierarchy, saying “They should have helped me… They let me become a priest.”
The scandal became the subject of an acclaimed film last year titled “Grace a Dieu” (By the Grace of God) by director Francois Ozon, who worked with some of the victims.
But in January, an appeals court overturned the conviction of Preynat’s superior, Lyon’s former archbishop Philippe Barbarin, for not reporting the abuse despite knowing about it for years.
The court said that while Barbarin should have informed the authorities, he was not criminally liable for his lack of action.
French bishops agreed last November to provide financial compensation to victims of sex abuse by priests.
The potential sums were set to be discussed in April, with priority for victims from several years ago whose cases are beyond the statute of limitations for prosecution.
But the coronavirus lockdown halted such meetings until further notice.