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French former priest accused on sexual assaults Bernard Preynat leaves Lyon's courthouse, southeastern France, on Jan. 17, 2020 at the end of his trial.

PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

One of the first people to notice Bernard Preynat’s unhealthy obsession for young boys was the supervisor at the seminary where, still a teen, the future priest started training for his career in the church.

“At 14, 15 years old, I became interested in the youngest boys and the supervisor summoned me to tell me that I was abnormal and sick,” the self-confessed child abuser said at his trial in France this past week. “I explained this to the bishop.”

And yet, after a two-year church-imposed course of psychotherapy, Mr. Preynat was still ordained into the priesthood. This chance, the first of many, to keep him away from children was spurned by the church hierarchy, which instead consistently – and successfully – long kept his abuses under wraps.

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Now, at Mr. Preynat’s trial in the city of Lyon, a fuller picture of the damage he wrought on dozens of boys and their families is emerging. Four days of hearings also gave a long-overdue airing to the enabling role played by French church officials. Aware of his abuses, Lyon cardinals told him to stop, but didn’t report him to police, he said.

“Had the church sidelined me earlier, I would have stopped earlier,” the 74-year-old testified.

Only last July – about 40 years after parents first wrote to the Lyon diocese to raise alarm about the priest – was Mr. Preynat finally defrocked. Mr. Preynat told the court that he can’t recall exactly how many boys he abused, but estimated their number at no fewer than 75.

The shocking testimony of Mr. Preynat and his victims is dealing another blow to the French Catholic Church as it reckons with sexual abuses that were long covered up.

Mr. Preynat faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of sexually abusing minors in what is France’s biggest clergy sex abuse trial to date. The prosecution asked for a sentence not less than eight years. A verdict is expected on March 16.

For victims, the trial has reinforced suspicions that had church officials acted far sooner, they might have been spared terrifying boyhood memories of being sexually abused. In court, they recalled how Mr. Preynat smelled of cigars and panted as he pressed his belly against them.

“This trial shows that supervisors in the hierarchy were aware. We can see there was a lid over the diocese,” said Pierre-Emmanuel Germain-Thill, who says his life was turned upside down by abuse he suffered. “On several occasions, parents denounced him.”

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Mr. Preynat said the psychotherapy the church made him undergo from 1967 to 1968 as a condition for being able to continue training for the priesthood quickly proved to be a failure.

“I thought I was cured after my therapy,” he testified. “I was disappointed because I started again with the kids. After that, no other member of the church encouraged me to do another one.”

His ordination in 1972 gave him both regular access to boys – he ran a scout group – and status to win the trust of unsuspecting parents.

Mr. Preynat testified that while working as their scout chaplain, he abused up to two boys “almost every weekend” from 1970 to 1990 and as many as four or five a week when he led one-week scout camps.

In a related case that reverberated all the way to the Vatican, Lyon Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was convicted in March of covering up for Mr. Preynat’s actions. Cardinal Barbarin tried to resign, but Pope Francis refused to accept it until the appeals process is complete. An appeals court ruling is expected on Jan. 30.

Mr. Preynat testified that Cardinal Barbarin’s predecessors concealed his abuses, too.

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The first Lyon cardinal to tell him to stop was Alexandre Renard, in 1978, after parents sent a letter to the diocese, Mr. Preynat said. But he wasn’t removed from his church in the Lyon suburb of Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyons and was left free to continue managing the scout group he had started. Cardinal Renard died in 1983.

More complaints from parents led to another summons in 1982 from the Lyon diocese, then led by Cardinal Albert Decourtray.

“I was warned by the hierarchy of the impact these acts could have in the media,” Mr. Preynat said.

Again, he was sent back to work.

Another complaint followed in 1985, and was again suppressed, Mr. Preynat said.

The church finally pulled him away from Lyon and his scout group in 1991, when parents were threatening to go public.

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Mr. Preynat says he swore then to Cardinal Decourtray that he wouldn’t touch any more children, and no other victims have come forward saying he abused them after 1991.

But Mr. Preynat also testified that the cardinal seemed uninterested in finding out exactly how much damage the priest had done during two decades of abuse.

“I told him that it was a long story, the drama of my life,” Mr. Preynat said. “He made a movement with his arm so that I wouldn’t tell him the facts.”

Cardinal Decourtray died in 1994.

After six months on the sidelines living with nuns, Mr. Preynat was given another parish in the Lyon countryside where he quietly ministered until 2015.

But his abuses weren’t forgotten, either by his victims or the church.

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Mr. Preynat said that in 2001, he was summoned again by Lyon’s cardinal, then Louis-Marie Billé, who wanted to know whether his abuses were too old to be prosecuted.

“I was received for 10 minutes.” Mr. Preynat testified. “He sent me to see a lawyer.”

Cardinal Billé died in 2002, replaced by Cardinal Barbarin.

Aside from church superiors, Mr. Preynat said he also systematically spoke about his behaviour in the confessional.

“I always confessed my faults,” he said. “Every time the confessor gave me absolution and urged me not to start again. A month later, I’d start again.”

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