The French Catholic Church is facing new accusations of a sexual abuse scandal within Paris’s Foreign Missions Society, an organisation dedicated to spreading Christianity overseas. As a criminal investigation has been opened into accusations against three clergymen from the group, a FRANCE 24 investigation by journalists Karina Chabour and Julie Dungelhoeff sheds light on the allegations against the society.
Another scandal that the Catholic Church could have done without: three criminal inquiries have opened in France into two priests and one bishop accused of sexual abuse.
The three men accused are all from the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP), an organisation founded in France in the 17th century to convert overseas populations in Asia to Catholicism. Today it claims to have 150 priests based in 14 countries across India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia.
Before the criminal inquiries were announced a FRANCE 24 team (in partnership with the Radio France investigations unit) was investigating the apostolic society to shed light on the inner workings of the prestigious institution, suspected of covering up the acts of sexual predators working in its midst.
A series of scandals
The three criminal investigations now open in France concern two former missionaries in Japan, Father Philippe and Father Aymeric, as well as the bishop of La Rochelle, Georges Colomb, who is also the former superior general of the MEP.
They are respectively accused of rape, aggravated rape and attempted rape. They have not yet been charged with any crimes, and so are presumed innocent. Father Philippe and Georges Colomb deny the accusations against them. Father Aymeric did not respond to a request for comment made by FRANCE 24.
In a conversation, recorded with Father Philippe’s permission by his accuser, the priest spoke of a “system” which he was introduced into when he was a seminarian with the MEP. He said his superiors initiated him into an active sex culture in which they held influence over him.
“I was a good new recruit… as a sexual object,” he said in tears.
The accusations against Father Philippe, Father Aymeric and Bishop Georges Colomb have all been made by alleged victims in France.
Yet, accusations of sexual abuse against MEP members expand well beyond French borders.
FRANCE 24’s investigative team travelled to northwest Thailand, home to the Karen ethnic minority group, where it collected multiple witness statements accusing two priests of sexual aggression towards young children.
A code of silence
For more than 30 years, the village of Chong Kaep, close to the Myanmar border, was home to a boarding school run by Father Tygreat that housed up to 260 Karen children.
When Father Tygreat died in 2007, he left a complicated legacy. Residents in the region continue to celebrate the memory of the MEP missionary who, they say, came to bring knowledge and humanitarian aid.
But the priest’s sexual interest in young children also seems to be well known among locals. He is believed to have spent years offering the promise of a better future in exchange for sexual favours.
Father Tygreat was never investigated by police for his alleged crimes, but another MEP missionary in Thailand, Father Camille Rio, was perturbed by stories he heard about the late priest’s behaviour from a local who claimed to be one of his victims.
Camille Rio alerted his hierarchy within the MEP to the accusations in 2020.
“I was told that they had known about it for several months, that it was obviously all true, but that I had nothing to worry about,” he said. “As our lawyers had been consulted, the MEP was safe.”
Camille Rio said that his contact at the time was Gilles Reithinger, former superior general and current auxiliary bishop of Strasbourg.
Shocked by the response, the priest said he tried to raise the alarm again, multiple times, but to no avail.
At the same time, his relationship with the organisation began to deteriorate. Having returned to France, he is currently being prevented from returning to his mission in Thailand and his future within the organisation seems unclear.
Challenging the system
Asked about tensions between Camille Rio and the organisation, the Superior General of the MEP Vincent Sénéchal said: “Father Camille Rio has led a number of projects. Unfortunately, the situation is tense and we hope that it can get better.”
Sénéchal maintained that the accusations against members were isolated incidents. “There is no culture of abuse within the Foreign Missions Society. We do not protect anyone who has crossed the red line of the law here.”
“The fact that one person or another has not respected their celibacy, or that another person has been caught up in individual failings, doesn’t make it systematic,” he said.
At the same time, there are a significant number of accusations that implicate the highest levels of the organisation and the profiles of the alleged victims often point towards their vulnerability.
In France, one victim was said to have been forced into nonconsensual sexual acts for financial reasons. A victim in Japan who claims to have been raped is on the autistic spectrum.
Attackers allegedly used the homosexuality of some victims – still a potent taboo in the Catholic Church – to their advantage. “If you are Catholic and gay there is shame, so we hide it,” said one whistle-blower. “Making a complaint would mean coming out as gay to everyone.”
Testimonies also claim that MEP members were able to take advantage of the prestigious reputation of their organisation in the eyes of its followers and the church hierarchy.
“At the heart of the Vatican, priests who work for the Paris Foreign Missions Society are given an attentive ear because they operate in areas that are difficult to reach. They are the messengers,” said Sophie Lebrun, journalist for French Christian publication La Vie. “They have an aura about them.”
The MEP said it is taking the accusations, which are now the subject of an internal inquiry, very seriously. Sénéchal announced in May 2023 the launch of a vast independent inquiry led by a private external company into abuse at the heart of the MEP since 1950.
Multiple sources in Thailand that spoke to FRANCE 24 indirectly incriminated a second MEP priest, as well as Father Tygreat, who used to work in the country and is still practicing in Asia. Father Camille Rio also reported this priest to the MEP.
The organisation said that an investigation into the priest led by the local superior “had interviewed 11 people and did not establish a credible claim for assault”.
The documentary reveals the limits of this internal inquiry: facing the camera, the superior general of the MEP admits that it has not actively sought out victims due to a belief that doing so would risk forcing them to relive their trauma.
“There’s a difference between going out to find people and saying, ‘you were alive in this year, did anything happen?’ That is a proactive approach,” Sénéchal said. “What we have done is work with the information that we have available to us.”
The accumulation of accusations against the MEP has also not prevented two members climbing the ranks within the French Catholic Church.
Despite multiple warnings sent to his superiors, MEP priest Georges Colomb became bishop of La Rochelle in 2016. He is currently under investigation in France and in June asked to retire from his position during the police investigation.
His successor as superior general of the MEP, Gilles Reithinger, became auxiliary bishop of Strasbourg in June 2021. Reithinger has denied any role in the sex scandals currently affecting the MEP and is not the subject of any legal investigations.
This article was adapted from the original in French.