The French government on Thursday summoned for explanation a top archbishop who said priests should not go to the police after hearing about child sexual abuse during confession.

Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort made the remark after a government inquiry lifted the lid on "massive" sexual assault in the French Catholic Church, estimating 216,000 victims over 70 years in systemic abuse covered up by a "veil of secrecy."

The commission recommended a series of measures to protect minors from predatory clergy, which included priests informing prosecutors of any child abuse they hear mentioned during the act of confession, a sacrament traditionally bound by strict secrecy.

"We need to find another way of doing this," Moulins-Beaufort, head of the Bishops' Conference of France (CEF), told France Info radio on Wednesday.

The secrecy of confession "is above the laws of the Republic. It creates a free space for speaking before God," he said.

His words were in line with new Vatican guidelines, released last year on handling clerical child abuse cases, which state that any crime discovered during confession is subject to "the strictest bond of the sacramental seal."

But in France, victims' advocates reacted furiously to the archbishop's remarks, saying that while French law recognises professional confidentiality for priests, it does not apply in cases of violence or sexual assault against minors.

"Nothing is above the laws of the Republic," government spokesman Gabriel Attal said Thursday.

Moulins-Beaufort has been summoned to appear before Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin early next week "to explain his comments," the minister's office said.

Attal said President Emmanuel Macron asked Darmanin to hold the meeting.

The French archbishop on Tuesday expressed his "shame and horror" when the landmark report was released after a more than two-year investigation.

Pope Francis also expressed his "shame for the inability of the Church for too long" to put victims at the centre of its concerns.



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