French judge refuses to block Catholic sex scandal film

Francois Ozon receives the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize for 'By the Grace of God' at the closing and award ceremony of the 69th annual Berlin International Film Festival, in Berlin, Germany, 16 February 2019. Picture: EPA/Felipe Trueba.

A judge in France has refused to block the release in French cinemas of a film based on a Catholic sex scandal.

French director Francois Ozon's movie Grace A Dieu (By The Grace Of God) won the Berlin Film Festival's jury grand prize on Saturday.

The film, which opens on Wednesday, portrays French priest Bernard Preynat, who has been accused of molesting dozens of boys during the 1980s and 1990s.

Preynat's lawyers said the film depicted allegations against their client as facts and should have been blocked because it does not respect the presumption of innocence.

Preynat has been handed preliminary charges of sexual assaults on minors and prosecutors are determining whether he will be brought to trial.

He has confessed to abusing boy scouts and his victims say church hierarchy covered up for him for years, allowing him to work with children right up until his 2015 retirement.

His lawyer Emmanuel Mercinier said the judge ruled that messages in the film noting that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty were enough to guarantee Preynat's rights.

Mr Mercinier said:

I'm bitterly ruing this decision. To depict a man as guilty for two hours, while he has not been convicted, infringes the presumption of innocence. That can't obviously be erased by writing the opposite for two seconds.

Preynat could go on trial accused of sexual violence against multiple children.

So far, 13 alleged victims are involved in that case, but he is accused of having abused as many as 70 children.

Preynat has not publicly spoken about the allegations but he has written letters to some families confessing to abuse.

The victims have accused Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who became archbishop of Lyon in 2002, of having allowed Preynat to continue serving as a priest and having contact with children despite years of rumours about his actions.

Barbarin, 68, went on trial last month and testified that he was unjustly accused.

Because of lack of proof, or the statute of limitations that has expired on charges of failing to help a person in danger, even the prosecutor has argued against convicting him and other church officials, saying there were no grounds to prove legal wrongdoing.

A verdict is expected on March 7, 2019.

Ozon's film title comes from a press conference in Lourdes in 2016 when Barbarin, asked about the alleged abuses by Preynat, said "most of the facts, by the grace of God, fell outside the statute of limitations".

-Press Association

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