French Prime Minister Jean Castex met Pope Francis at the Vatican on Monday as the French Catholic Church battles a storm over clerical child sex abuse and the sanctity of confession.
Castex was visiting the Vatican and Rome for celebrations marking the centenary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between France and the Holy See.
The prime minister gave the pope, a keen soccer fan, an unusual gift: a Paris-Saint Germain jersey signed by the pontiff's fellow Argentine Lionel Messi. He presented the glass-framed number 30 jersey following 35 minutes of private talks at the Vatican.
The long-planned trip to Rome, which includes talks with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, follows the publication of a devastating report estimating that French Catholic clergy had abused 216,000 children since 1950.
Watch: French PM meets Pope Francis after clerical child sex abuse report
Pope Francis, who has made battling the global scourge of clerical abuse a priority of his papacy, has expressed "my shame, our shame" at the findings, echoing a similar sentiment from French church leaders.
However, a row broke out earlier this month when Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, the head of the Bishops' Conference of France, said priests were not obliged to report sexual abuse if they heard about it during the Catholic ritual of confession, used to admit to sins.
His words were in line with Vatican guidelines updated last year, which call on clerics to report claims of abuse. They say confession is subject to "the strictest bond of the sacramental seal", while saying the confessor should try and convince the penitent to tell someone else.
Yet in France, victims' advocates pointed out that French law recognises professional confidentiality for priests, but it does not apply in potentially criminal cases involving violence or sexual assault against minors.
After his meeting at the Vatican, Castex told reporters that the pope had said the French church had been "courageous" in dealing with the issue.
"He trusts the Church in France to draw conclusions. He is pleased there has been no denial," the premier said. "The Church will not go back on the dogma of the secret of the confession. But we must at all costs finds ways and means to reconcile this with criminal law, the rights of victims," Castex added.
Moulins-Beaufort was called to a meeting last week with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, and later insisted that protecting children was "an absolute priority".
Darmanin accompanied Castex and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to the Vatican, touring the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica after their meeting with the pope.
Watch: French clergy 'abused 216,000 children' since 1950
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)