French police questioned the Roman Catholic cardinal-archbishop of Lyon on Wednesday for over 10 hours in an inquiry into the activities of a paedophile priest in the early 1990s and why they were not reported to the civil authorities, lawyers said.
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, 65, who has denied covering up the activities of Father Bernard Preynat, was questioned as a witness by officers of the child and family protection brigade at a police station in the central city.
"He's been dragged in the mud for numerous months and he wanted to respond," Barbarin's lawyer Jean-Felix Luciani told journalists after the cardinal emerged from questioning.
Several victims of alleged paedophile abuse have filed complaints against the prelate, who holds the honorific title of Primate of the Gauls, for failing to report the incidents to the justice authorities and leaving the accused priest in place.
Preynat was placed under judicial investigation in January for alleged sexual abuse of Catholic boy scouts in 1991 and released on bail. His lawyer said he had admitted the facts of "sexual abuse on minors under 15 years old by a person in a position of authority" to an investigating magistrate.
While Barbarin has denied any wrongdoing, he acknowledged "errors in the management and appointment of some priests" in a statement issued in April.
Prosecutors are likely to decide this month whether there are grounds to seek a formal criminal investigation or not. Barbarin's lawyer said he was optimistic the case would be dropped.
Barbarin had a private audience with Pope Francis in Rome last month and the pontiff said afterwards in an interview with the Catholic newspaper La Croix that it would make no sense for the cardinal to resign.
"We will see after the trial is over. But now, it would be declaring oneself guilty," the pope said.
"According to the information at my disposal, Cardinal Barbarin took the appropriate measures, he took things in hand. He is brave, creative, a missionary," Francis was quoted as saying, adding: "We must wait now to see where the civil legal procedures leads."
A papal decree issued on Sunday said bishops found "negligent" when dealing with cases of sexual abuse will be investigated and could be removed from office. The order backed up Francis's declaration of "zero tolerance" for anyone in the church who abuses children.