PARIS, Dec. 1 - A French appeals court today overturned the conviction of six people accused of participating in a pedophilia ring in northern France five years ago, unraveling one of the most mismanaged cases in French judicial history and leaving the nation asking how the court system could have gone so awry.
"I apologize to the acquitted and their families," the French justice minister, Pascal Clément, said at a press conference after the appeal verdict was announced in Paris. He ordered investigations of the police, judiciary and social services involved in the case and asked for a report by February.
"I want the French people to know that I will get to the bottom of this," he said.
Paris' chief prosecutor, Yves Bot, personally asked the appeal court on Wednesday to acquit the six, calling the case a "true catastrophe" and demanding an investigation into who was responsible for such a gross miscarriage of justice. Attorneys for the defense asked for a moment of silence in memory of François Mourmand, one of those falsely accused, who committed suicide in prison last year.
"We must do what is necessary to make sure this doesn't happen again," Mr. Bot said, adding that the case has created serious doubts about French justice.
But others were heartened by the appeal, saying that it showed that the courts were capable of self-criticism and self-correction. "That's indispensable in a democracy," said Dominique Wolton, a sociologist at France's National Council for Scientific Research, adding the rectification of such a major failure will help "relegitimize the justice system."
The case began in 2000 in the northern town of Outreau after a number of children told a teacher that they had been abused at the home of Thierry and Myriam Delay. Mr. Delay, who is unemployed and alcoholic, confessed to abusing his own four children, but none belonging to anyone else. Ms. Delay, however, told a more complicated tale of a pedophile ring that reached into neighboring Belgium and implicated many of her neighbors.
The charges originally ensnared 18 people. Friends of the Delays, David Delplanque and Aruelie Grenon, also confessed and Ms. Grenon repeated Ms. Delay's accusations against the others.
The four principal defendants were eventually convicted, but not before Ms. Delay and Ms. Grenon recanted their testimony implicating the others.
"I'm sick, I'm a liar, I lied about everything," Ms. Delay told a stunned courtroom in May last year. She pointed out several of the accused who had endured years of investigation, imprisonment and humiliation, saying they were innocent.
Despite that testimony, though, the court found six of the remaining defendants guilty and sentenced them to jail for terms of up to seven years.
During their joint appeal, which went to trial in Paris early in November, Ms. Delay and her husband again testified that the six had had no role in the affair.
"It was a moment of madness," she told the appeals court about her initial accusations, which she said were all lies. Her husband repeated her assertions, telling the court "it was only the four of us," referring to himself, his wife and their friends, Mr. Delplanque and Ms. Grenon.
The case was marred by deep doubts from the beginning, said Yves Jannier, France's attorney general, speaking to the appeals court on Wednesday. He noted that the investigative report by police in July 2002 found "more doubts than certainties" in the accusations, but said, "no one had enough critical sense to stop the machine."
The decision reinforces concerns about cases that rely on the testimony of children, particularly amid what some sociologists and child-abuse experts call the "hysteria" that has crept across Europe following the arrest of a Belgian, Marc Dutroux, for kidnapping, raping and killing children nearly a decade ago. He was sentenced to life in prison.
In an even larger pedophile case here, 61 adults accused of abusing 45 children in the historic French city of Angers were sentenced to heavy jail sentences in July. Lawyers in that case said it was much stronger, though 17 of those convicted have filed appeals.
Last week, the main defendant in a massive pedophile case in Portugal was released after spending three years in preventative detention. His trial is continuing.