The departure of Aupetit creates a new challenge for the French Church.
Archbishop Michel Aupetit celebrates Mass at Saint-Philippe-du-Roule Catholic Church, Paris. robertharding / Alamy
Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit unexpectedly quickly today, putting an end to a festering personnel question in the country’s most prominent archdiocese still shaken by a shocking report on sexual abuse in the French Church.
Archbishop Georges Pontier, the retired head of Marseille archdiocese and former president of the French bishops conference, was appointed apostolic administrator. It was his second appointment to a troubled bishopric within a year, the first being in Avignon.
The Pope, who normally does not like to make decisions under public opinion pressure, saved Paris weeks if not months of continued turbulence.
In a similar recent case, he first rejected the resignation of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin as archbishop of Lyon and waited until he was first condemned by a civil court for nondisclosure and then acquitted on appeal before accepting.
That would have added another scandal to one the French Church already had to deal with after an independent commission estimated in October a total of 330,000 cases of sexual abuse of minors since 1950, two-thirds of them committed by priests.
Archbishop Aupetit had unexpectedly offered to resign last week over media reports about his brusque management style.
Discontent with the archbishop burst into the open when the centre-right newsweekly Le Point published a long inquiry into his controversial decisions and spoke of “his scathing ways, his singular lack of listening and empathy”.
It also reported a decade-old relationship with a woman, which Aupetit insists was not intimate and was reported to his superiors.
Coming so soon after the sexual abuse report, some Paris Catholics reacted by saying that, if true, the supposed affair was at least with a consenting adult woman.
The case has been a headache for Pope Francis, forced to decide whether to back a much-criticised bishop or find a new face for the leading diocese in France.
At the same time, the Vatican has put off a papal meeting planned for 9 December with members of the independent commission that published the sexual abuse report on 5 October.
Le Point noted that two vicars general, including the popular Mgr Benoist de Sinety, had quit over the past year. They did not disclose why publicly but the magazine said Aupetit had humiliated them and ignored their suggestions several times.
One unpopular decision was abruptly to terminate the 45-year-old experimental parish of St Merry in February, after which Sinety left Paris for Lille. His resignation came four months after another vicar general Mgr Alexis Leproux, 49, also quit after only two years in his post.
Two other decisions were the abrupt firing of a Catholic school director in a chic Paris neighbourhood and applying the Pope’s limits on the Latin Mass in a way traditionalists considered too authoritarian.
“Michel Aupetit has therefore united against him apparently irreconcilable opponents: the ‘open Catholics’ who support St. Merry, a fringe of the bourgeoisie … as well as a nucleus of traditionalist Catholics,” the Catholic weekly La Vie wrote.
Aupetit, chosen in December 2017, had offered to step down to preserve unity in the archdiocese. “The word ‘resignation’ is not the one I used,” he insisted last week. “I’ve put (my post) into the hands of the Holy Father.”
About the reported affair, he said: “My behaviour towards her may have been ambiguous, thus allowing one to assume the existence of an intimate relationship and sexual relations, which I strongly refute.”
The abuse report revealed further divisions within the Church. A group of intellectuals from the French Catholic Academy challenged its results, saying they were methodologically and theologically weak and sometimes ruinous for the Church.
The heads of the country’s bishops’ conference and conference of religious promptly resigned from the academy, saying neither they nor Jean-Marc Sauvé — also a member — had been informed of this broadside.
Sr Véronique Margron, head of the conference of religious, said the abuse report had established the Church’s institutional responsibility for the scandal — which the hierarchy admitted on 8 November for the first time — no matter how many or few cases it estimated.
“The systemic dimension is due to the fact that the aggressors have been able to attack for 30 or even 40 years, (and) they were protected by their hierarchy, sometimes to the point that it became complicit,” she said.
Creating another headache, media reports have highlighted expensive property holdings in Paris by a Church that has agreed to pay victims compensation without knowing how large this bill will be.
In Brittany, Fr Maurice Roger, 57 and a former vicar general in Vannes received a three-year suspended sentence for embezzling €678,000 of diocesan funds and contributions to finance liaisons with young men in Colombia. He has been barred from his mission since 2016.