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French priest remanded over claims of decades of abuse
A French priest from the southern city of Nice has been remanded in custody and placed under formal investigation on suspicion of sexually abusing minors over 35 years – in a rare move by the prosecutor’s office.
The Nice prosecutor said Jean-Marc Schoepff, 61, would remain in provisional detention to ensure no pressure – either direct or indirect – could be put on any victims who had yet to come forward.
Schoepff served as chaplain at several private high schools in the southern city, including the prestigious Stanislas Institution, for more than 35 years. A judicial inquiry was opened in May by the prosecutor’s office for “sexual abuse of minors by a person in a position of authority”.
There are around 10 accusations against the priest, according to the prosecutor’s office, with at least one of them falling outside of the statute of limitations.
Schoepff remained in contact with young boys until last year when he was suspended on orders from the prefecture after allegations of sexual abuse began emerging. The parish priest was then removed from any contact with minors but continued to celebrate mass.
Schoepff was friendly sevral well-to-do families in the city, including the parents of Thomas Bidart – the first victim to speak out against him. The 42-year-old filed a complaint against Schoepff in January 2017, accusing him of sexually abusing him when he was 13 years old. The alleged assault took place too long ago to be prosecuted.
Bidart had never spoken publicly of the incident, until he learned during the 2016 Christmas break that his twin brother had also been molested by the priest. He too suffered for decades in silence – and even questioned his own recollection of the events. But after hearing his twin’s account, he confronted Schoepff directly. The priest confirmed that he did indeed abuse the brothers.
Following the confrontation, in a series of SMS seen by Le Monde newspaper, he said he was overcome with remorse and that all he could do was “pray; every day, every hour”.
The story matches that of 41-year-old Benoît Valla, another student at the Stanislas Institution. When he was 12 or 13, he was one of Schoepff’s “top 10” favourites to be invited on a skiing trip, where he was abused.
Nice Prosector Jean-Michel Prêtre said there could be many more cases of abuse and that Schoepff would remain in custody during the investigation into his 35 years of activity.
The move was welcomed by the Bidart brothers’ lawyer.
“Schoepff was a highly influential figure in Nice,” said Vincent Ehrenfeld. “Right after Thomas spoke out, a support group sprang up for the priest. There will be pressure.”
Those who have already gone public say they aim to speak about their ordeal as much as possible, in the hope of encouraging more victims to come forward.
France, like many countries, has been hit by a series of allegations of sex abuse by priests, leading French bishops to set up an inquiry into paedophilia in the Church.