A retired French surgeon, Joël Le Scouarnec, has been sentenced to 15 years in jail for the rape and sexual abuse of four children in the first chapter of what is set to be France's biggest-ever paedophilia case.
The 70-year-old remained impassive as the verdict was read out on Thursday at the court in Saintes, western France. He kept his arms crossed without looking at his victims, who embraced each other, overcome with emotion.
Le Scouarnec was facing 20 years behind bars after being found guilty on charges of "rapes" and "sexual abuses," of four people, the youngest aged four at the time.
He will also be subject to a three-year supervision order at the end of his sentence and his name will be added to the database of sex offenders Francesca Satta, the lawyer for one of the victims, said. Le Scouarnec has 10 days to appeal.
Judge Isabelle Fachaux said that despite a 2005 conviction for viewing child pornography, Le Scouarnec had continued to offend, making a lengthy jail term necessary.
"We are really satisfied...it's a fair sentence," said Satta.
Some people campaigning against child abuse found the sentencing too lenient however.
In his final words to the court, Le Scouarnec said he did not expect leniency, according to lawyers present at the trial, which was held behind closed doors at the victims' request.
"I do not ask for forgiveness or compassion...only the right to become a better man again," he was quoted as saying.
"He explained that he had a lot of regrets... without necessarily asking for an apology. He knows that what he did is unforgivable," his lawyer Thibaut Kurzawa said.
Hundreds of other cases
The once-respected doctor and father of three sons now faces a possible second trial involving hundreds of cases of sexual assault or rape between 1986 and 2014.
Le Scouarnec was charged in 2017 after testimony from one of his victims, his neighbour's six-year-old daughter.
The investigation quickly uncovered three others - two of his nieces, raped between 1989 and 1999, and a hospital patient who was only four in 1993.
Prosecutors say searches of Le Scouarnec's home uncovered archives detailing sexual assaults or rapes of as many as 312 victims, both adults and children, starting in 1986 while he worked at hospitals in central and western France.
Police found more than 300,000 indecent images of minors, including pictures of his two nieces.
During the trial, which started on Monday, Le Scouarnec admitted having raped his nieces, now aged 35 and 30. His admission "did them a lot of good", according to their lawyer Delphine Driguez.
No date for a second trial has been set yet.
Questions arose during the trial about why nothing came out before and whether some people may have been aware of the alleged abuses.
The surgeon had already been sentenced in 2005 to a four-month suspended prison sentence for possession and importation of child pornographic images.
Investigations have determined that Le Scouarnec rubbed shoulders with two other doctors, one convicted for possession and dissemination of child pornographic images in the western region of Brittany, and another convicted for sexual abuse of children in the southwestern town of Jonzac, where the surgeon later moved.