Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, 68, is one of six Church officials accused of failing to report Bernard Preynat, a priest accused of abusing children around the French city of Lyon between 1986 and 1991.
Preynat was denounced within the Church and prevented from leading scout groups in 1991 but was later allowed to teach children and held positions of authority until the scandal became public in 2015.
Preynat has acknowledged abusing boys and is set to go on trial this year.
Barbarin admitted in 2016 to having known about the allegations for nearly a decade, and his trial is expected to hinge upon whether he should have reported the priest to police.
He denies allegations of wrongdoing and faces up to three years in prison and a 45,000 euro fine if found guilty.
Two other French Catholic officials have been convicted of failing to report child abuse in the past, but Barbarin is the highest-profile official implicated in a cover-up.
“It’s very rare that cardinals or bishops are prosecuted for covering up child abuse, and that’s the most effective action that civil authorities can take to change the system,” says Miguel Hurtado of the international victims’ rights group The Ending Clergy Abuse Global Justice Project.
“The biggest precedent [French judges] can set is to say that nobody is above the law, no matter how powerful you are; that you may be a cardinal, but if you cover up abuse, you go to jail.”
Accusations beyond Barbarin
The case involving Barbarin comes amid a global move of victims denouncing both predator priests and the officials accused of protecting them.
As the trial opened, Pope Francis renewed a promise to rid the Church of abuse, following clerics being denounced as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Chile, Ireland and the United States.
“The abuse of minors is one of the vilest and most heinous crimes conceivable,” Francis said in an annual address to ambassadors to the Vatican.
But if Barbarin is one of the highest-ranking Church officials to be brought to trial, the accusations in this case go even higher.
“Cardinal Barbarin has made it clear that he was just following orders, that he was doing what the Vatican told him to do,” says Hurtado, referring to Spanish Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the head of the Vatican’s powerful Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The third most powerful figure in the Vatican, Ladaria advised Barbarin to handle the accusations against Preynat by taking the “necessary disciplinary measures while avoiding public scandal”.
Ladaria was named in the case but will not appear in court because the Vatican invoked his diplomatic immunity, a gesture that Hurtado says speaks for itself when it comes to the Church’s willingness to address the issue in a serious way.
“The problem is not a few rotten apples, because the whole system is corrupt,” he says.
“There are systems and structures in place that allow these kind of cases to be covered up, not reported to the police. So this is not only a problem of Cardinal Barbarin. It’s also a problem with how the Catholic Church operates.”