French bishop resigns over 'inappropriate behaviour'

Julie Ducourau with Benoit Fauchet in Paris
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The Roman Catholic Church has since 2002 been rocked by sex abuse allegations

A French bishop resigned Thursday over "inappropriate behaviour" towards youths after a rare initiative by the Vatican just weeks after complaints came to the attention of his diocese.

Herve Gaschignard, 57, bishop of the southwest diocese of Dax, tendered his resignation at the suggestion of the Vatican's envoy to France, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, the French Catholic Church said in a statement.

Gaschignard's deputy Denis Cazeaux said at a news conference that three young people had come forward with allegations, but "it is not about paedophile acts."

Instead, it was about the bishop getting too close to young parishioners. "Anyone involved in teaching youths should find the right distance," he said.

Pope Francis accepted Gaschignard's resignation, the church statement said.

A spokesman for the diocese, Paul Perromat, told AFP that "no complaint has been lodged" with local prosecutors.

The archbishop of nearby Bordeaux, Jean-Pierre Ricard, said in a statement that two church workers "in contact with youths" had approached him on March 21 to voice their concerns over Gaschignard.

"His behaviour upset and troubled a certain number of these young people, who spoke to their families about it," Ricard said.

The head of a regional association that fights paedophilia told AFP that two teenagers had approached it with allegations against Gaschignard.

A 14-year-old boy said the bishop asked him about his sexual habits, while a girl, also aged 14, said he had stroked her thigh, kissed her on the cheek, and whispered "a lot of inappropriate things" to her.

The Catholic daily La Croix reported that Gaschignard raised concerns in 2011 in nearby Toulouse where he was auxiliary bishop with duties that included instructing young people.

Four chaperones on a youth pilgrimage trip wrote to Toulouse Archbishop Robert Le Gall expressing alarm over Gaschignard's behaviour.

Le Gall alerted local prosecutors, who decided not to act on the information, the association said.

Gaschignard was named to the Dax diocese in 2012.

- Cover-ups -

The Vatican intervened in the case with a directness and rapidity it has often been accused of lacking over other cases, especially with high-ranking clerics accused of abuse or covering up for it.

The French church was rocked last year by allegations that the Archbishop of Lyon, Philippe Barbarin, covered up the abuse of scouts and failed to remove a priest despite being aware he had sexually abused the boys a quarter-century ago.

A string of historic paedophilia cases in North America and Europe has unleashed widespread criticism of the Catholic hierarchy.

The Barbarin scandal was the worst to hit the church in France since 2001, when a bishop was given a three-month suspended jail sentence for failing to inform authorities about a paedophile priest.

Barbarin, who has claimed his innocence, remains in his post, but the scandal has tarnished the image of one of the church's most media-friendly figures.

In response to the scandal, the church's hierarchy announced a series of measures last April, including the creation of a dedicated secure email address for victims to report abuse.