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LYON, France (AP) — A French appeals court on Thursday threw out a lower court ruling convicting a French cardinal of covering up the sexual abuse of minors in his flock, a decision culminating a drama that has produced angst for the Roman Catholic Church and reawakened a past of pain and shame for some of the victims seeking justice.
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin said he will nevertheless ask the pope to allow him to resign — repeating a request that was refused earlier by Pope Francis, who wanted to await the outcome of the appeals trial.
Thursday's court decision “allows me to turn a page and for the church of Lyon to open a new chapter,” Barbarin said at a brief news conference. He said he would go to Rome "if the Holy Father wants to meet me," to "renew my request."
“Today, always, my thoughts go to the victims. With many brothers and sisters, I will continue to pray every day for them and their families,” Barbarin added.
For its part, the Vatican said in a statement that it closely followed the case, along with Barbarin's wish to resign.
Expressing its solidarity with the Lyon church and its "closeness to all victims of abuse," the Vatican said that the pope “would make known his decision at the right time.”
The verdict comes at a time of increasing scrutiny around the world of the Catholic Church’s role in hiding abuse by its clergy.
The case against the cardinal was triggered by a complaint brought to his attention regarding a predator priest who went on trial earlier this month and described his years of abuse of members of a boy scout troop he was in charge of. Barbarin, also archbishop of Lyon, remained silent despite the complaint.
The appeals court in the southeastern French city of Lyon said in a 38-page document explaining its decision that it found no “intentional element” showing a cover-up.
It concluded that the nine victims who filed suit against Barbarin over his silence were no longer minors and could have taken legal action directly against the abusive priest. “Philippe Barbarin did not dissuade Alexandre Hezez from filing suit,” the judgment said. Hezez was a victim who spoke to Barbarin.
Barbarin had been convicted in March and given a six-month suspended sentence for failing to report the predator priest, Bernard Preynat, to police.
Yves Sauvayre, a lawyer representing victims in the cover-up case against the cardinal, said they plan to appeal to France's highest court.
The prosecutor's office had sought the acquittal accorded by the court, as it did in Barbarin's initial trial in March, in which he was convicted and handed a six-month suspended prison sentence. Prosecutors had recommended already in 2016 that the case be dropped because of a lack of proof of a cover-up.
“This decision is logical,” one of Barbarin's lawyer's, Jean Felix Luciani, said outside the courtroom. He said the cardinal had faced down “public rumor and calumny.”
Barbarin, 69, said at his appeals trial in November that he filed an appeal because "I cannot see clearly what I am guilty of."
The lower court had ruled that Barbarin, "in wanting to avoid scandal caused by the facts of multiple sexual abuses committed by a priest ... preferred to take the risk of preventing the discovery of many victims of sexual abuse by the justice system, and to prohibit the expression of their pain.”
Preynat, the now-defrocked priest at the center of the scandal, described to a court at his trial this month how he systematically abused boys over two decades as a French scout chaplain. Preynat said his superiors knew about his “abnormal” behavior as far back as the 1970s.
“Had the church sidelined me earlier, I would have stopped earlier,” Preynat said.
Preynat, now 74, faces up to 10 years in prison in what is France's biggest clergy sex abuse trial to date. He's suspected of abusing around 75 boys, but his testimony suggests the overall number could be even higher. That verdict is expected in March.
The case against Barbarin hinged on a 2014 discussion with Hezez, one of the victims, who told the cardinal about the sexual abuse he had suffered in the 1980s by Preynat during scout camps. Hezez felt the priest should no longer lead a parish.
Barbarin told the appeal hearing that he followed Vatican instructions after that discussion with Hezez. He suggested he could not have done more.
At the trial of Preynat, victims testified about how much power the priest had held over them and the lifelong damage that his abuse caused.
“I saw this community that admired this man, and I was his protege, his pet,” said abuse victim Francois Devaux.
Devaux had a sober reaction after Thursday's court ruling, saying "It is a disappointment.”
Elaine Ganley contributed to this report from Paris.
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