PARIS (AP) — France has a “deeply rooted” societal problem with child sexual abuse, the French official responsible for children and families acknowledged Friday while discussing new government plans to address it with tougher laws and heightened vigilance in schools.
Speaking in an interview with The Associated Press, Adrien Taquet, a secretary of state in the French Health Ministry, said “there are some urgent matters, and we have some urgent responses.”
"But there are some very very deep issues so it’s only a beginning,” he added.
Proposed legal changes announced by the government this week would classify any sexual penetration of a child under age 15 by an adult as rape and expand the statute of limitations to make it easier to prosecute sexual predators. The proposed measures follow a series of high-profile cases in France that highlighted legal obstacles to prosecuting alleged child rapists.
“If you have 5 victims of a perpetrator and only the last crime can be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations, tomorrow the four previous victims will also be able to bring their case to justice," Taquet explained.
A massive online movement that saw thousands of people share accounts about sexual abuse within their families also brought attention to the issue. Over 160 French celebrities signed an appeal Friday in Le Parisien newspaper urging the government to take action.
“This is important in itself, it is important as a symbol, as a message to the society,” Taquet said. “But there are so many other things we have to improve.”
Changes are going “to take some time” because problems are “so deeply rooted in our society,” he said.
Authorities register about 25,000 legal complaints each year about sexual abuse of children, but the actual number of cases could be up to 10 times higher, Taquet said.
French President Emmanuel Macron has promised that all elementary and middle school students will be screened for signs of sexual abuse and that prevention education will be stepped up. Taquet said teachers and other professionals who work with children will get specific training.
“Today, when (child protection) groups intervene in schools to raise these issues, systematically you have a kid or two coming at the end to tell them that something happened," Taquet said.
“So we need to extend that practice, make it systematic," help children through potential judicial prosecution and offer psychological help, he added.
Taquet, who has been Macron’s junior minister for families and children since 2019, said he is also working on specific measures to better protect children with special needs from abuse.
“It was a matter of emergency to listen to the children and to listen to the victims, to believe them,” he said. “For so many years, we haven’t believed them. The institutions haven’t believed them.”