PARIS — A retired French surgeon has been charged with the rape and sexual assault of more than 300 people, a vast majority of whom were under 15, in what could be France’s biggest-ever pedophilia and sexual abuse case.
Joël Le Scouarnec, 70, a specialist in abdominal surgery, is accused of having abused 312 people over three decades at several hospitals in central and western France. The authorities said details about the identities of the victims, whose average age was 11, were included in private diaries kept by Mr. Le Scouarnec, where he described at length the sexual abuses he is accused of perpetrating. Fewer than 50 were adults.
“It is an unusual case to say the least, correctly described as extraordinary, both because of the number of its victims and the conditions that led to the exposure of the crimes,” Stéphane Kellenberger, the state prosecutor in charge of the case, told reporters on Thursday.
Mr. Le Scouarnec had already been charged with sexual abuse of minors in 2017, a case that led investigators to discover the diaries.
France has been rocked by a series of sexual abuse and pedophilia scandals; the most recent was that of Gabriel Matzneff, a writer who, for decades, wrote openly of his pedophilia with the protection of some French elites.
But Mr. Le Scouarnec’s case is perhaps the largest ever in France involving sexual abuse and pedophilia by an individual.
“The scale of the case is really unprecedented,” said Pierre Verdrager, a sociologist who has studied pedophilia. “I am not aware of a case with so many victims.”
The public prosecutor’s office had initially identified 343 potential victims but eventually dismissed 31 cases because the statute of limitations had lapsed or for lack of evidence. Among the remaining 312 people, all thought to have been abused between 1986 and 2014, about 100 were most likely raped and about 200 sexually assaulted, Mr. Kellenberg said.
French laws prohibit sex between an adult and a minor under the age of 15, but it is not automatically considered rape. Further circumstances, such as the use of coercion, threats, or violence, are necessary to characterize such sexual relationships as rape.
France recently toughened laws against sex crimes and extended the statute of limitations for rape against a minor to 30 years from 20 years.
“We are faced with the pedophilia case of the century, because of the personality of the perpetrator and because of the facts,” said Francesca Satta, a lawyer representing about 20 accusers in the case.
Mr. Le Scouarnec was first arrested in 2017 after a 6-year-old girl living in his neighborhood reported him to her parents. Mr. Le Scouarnec allegedly showed her his penis and digitally penetrated her, said Ms. Satta, who is also the girl’s lawyer.
That led to an investigation on sexual abuses committed against four underage girls between 1989 and 2017, including the 6-year-old girl and two members of Mr. Le Scouarnec’s own family, resulting in charges of rape, sexual assault and exhibitionism. Mr. Le Scouarnec is in prison awaiting trial in the case, scheduled for late next month.
What investigators did not anticipate, however, was that a search of Mr. Le Scouarnec’s home as part of this first investigation revealed much more than expected. Along with three-foot-tall toy dolls, mannequin wigs and child pornography images, police officers said they found secret diaries recounting in great detail Mr. Le Scouarnec’s sexual encounters with scores of children at hospitals where he practiced between 1989 and 2017.
Mr. Kellenberg, the state prosecutor, said Thursday that investigators carried out “the most exhaustive and methodical analysis possible of these elements,” which took “the form of an unbearable enumeration.” The diaries, which consisted of notes typed on a computer, included “some paragraphs, elaborate and detailed, rich in details that are difficult to bear.”
The children were, most of the time, abused in a hospital, while under anesthetic substances, sedation and other medical treatments, Mr. Kellenberg said.
Mr. Le Scouarnec’s diaries included dates and details about the identities of the children, officials said, allowing the police to trace them to obtain their testimony, leading to the indictment Thursday on charges of rape and sexual assault.
Thibaut Kurzawa, Mr. Le Scouarnec’s lawyer, denounced what he called a “show procedure,” saying his client’s rights of defense had been violated and his safety endangered. But he declined to comment on the charges.
Mr. Le Scouarnec had already been given a four-month suspended jail sentence in 2005 for possessing child pornography. But the sentence did not prevent him from practicing medicine.
“This is a major institutional dysfunction,” said Mr. Verdrager, the sociologist, who said medical and judicial authorities bore responsibility. He added that, as was the case with Mr. Matzneff, the writer, Mr. Le Scouarnec was part of an elite that might have shielded him from retaliation.
Mr. Kellenberger announced that an investigation had been started to determine if other people had been aware of Mr. Le Scouarnec’s actions and failed to report them.