A defrocked Catholic priest was given a five-year jail term Monday for sexually abusing boy scouts in his care several decades ago, a case that roiled the French Church over claims he was shielded from prosecution by his superiors.

Bernard Preynat, 75, had confessed at his trial in January in the southeastern city of Lyon to "caresses" he knew were forbidden after victims testified of the abuses they suffered at his hands.

The accusers were aged seven to 14 when the alleged crimes were committed between 1971 and 1991, when Preynat was a scout leader in Lyon.

The five-year term was less than the eight years sought by prosecutors, who accused the ex-priest of "shattering" his victims' lives and profiting from the silence of parents and Church hierarchy.

Victims' groups had long accused Preynat's superior, Philippe Barbarin, of covering up the abuse, making him the most senior French priest to be caught up in the global clerical paedophilia scandal in recent years.

Barbarin, a staunch conservative who became archbishop of Lyon in 2002, was handed a six-month suspended sentence in March 2019 for not reporting crimes Preynat confessed to him in 2010.

But in January, an appeals court overturned the conviction, saying that while Barbarin should have informed the authorities, he was not criminally liable for his lack of action.

Pope Francis accepted Barbarin's resignation earlier this month.

Preynat was allowed to continue working as a priest by the Lyon dioceses until 2015, when initial claims from a handful of alleged victims became a deluge of damning testimony.

Bernard Preynat confessed at his trial to 'caresses' he knew were forbidden
Bernard Preynat confessed at his trial to 'caresses' he knew were forbidden AFP / PHILIPPE DESMAZES

He claimed during his trial that he had not touched any children since 1991, and faulted the church for failing to help him get treatment.

"They should have helped me... They let me become a priest," Preynat told the court, referring to fruitless therapy in 1967 and 1968.

He also asked forgiveness from the nine victims who testified against him -- a small fraction of the alleged 85 people he took advantage of during his career, though many cases were not heard because they exceeded statutes of limitation.

Preynat, who also said he had tried to commit suicide, was defrocked by the Church last July.

The scandal cast a harsh spotlight on Barbarin, who denied last year that he covered up "these horrible facts" and claimed that "I cannot see what I am guilty of."

This month, he said the last four years had been ones of "great, great suffering" for him, adding "it is important that a page be turned."

It became the subject of an acclaimed film last year by director Francois Ozon titled "Grace a Dieu" (Thanks be to God), who collaborated with some of the victims.

Separately on Monday, a court in Saintes, southwest France, suspended the trial of a retired French surgeon accused of sexually assaulting and raping minors in what prosecutors believe could be France's biggest paedophilia case ever.

Joel Le Scouarnec, 69, went on trial last week on charges he raped or assaulted four children, but prosecutors say he may have abused as many as 349 children over his 30-year career.

His trial was pushed back to October after French authorities closed all courthouses to all but "essential litigation" as part of measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak.