The Guardian [London, England]
February 13, 2023
By Agence France-Presse
Independent commission reaches conclusion after hearing evidence from over 500 survivors last year
Catholic clergy in Portugal have abused nearly 5,000 children since 1950, an independent commission said on Monday after hearing hundreds of survivors’ accounts.
Thousands of reports of paedophilia within the church have surfaced around the world, and Pope Francis is under pressure to tackle the scandal.
The Portuguese inquiry, commissioned by the church in the staunchly Catholic country, published its findings after hearing from more than 500 survivors last year.
“This testimony allows us to establish a much larger network of victims, at least 4,815,” the commission head, Pedro Strecht, told a press conference in Lisbon that was attended by several senior church officials.
Strecht, a child psychiatrist, said it would be difficult now for Portugal to ignore the existence of child sexual abuse or the trauma it had caused.
Responding to the report, the head of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference (CEP), Bishop José Ornelas, said: “I am satisfied with this difficult and dramatic work, and we hope it marks a new beginning.” He also expressed “a thought for the victims”.
The country’s bishops will convene in March to draw conclusions from the report and “rid the church of this scourge as much as possible”, Father Manuel Barbosa, a senior CEP member, said in January.
Faced with a multitude of clergy sexual abuse cases that have come to light worldwide and the accusations of cover-ups, Pope Francis promised in 2019 to root out paedophilia in the Catholic church.
Inquiries have been launched in several countries in addition to Portugal, including Australia, France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands.
The pontiff may meet some of the Portuguese survivors when he visits Lisbon in August, the capital’s auxiliary bishop, Américo Aguiar, said recently.
The time limit for bringing charges has already expired for the vast majority of offences recorded by Strecht’s six-member commission, but 25 cases have been transferred to the prosecution service.
One of them concerns “Alexandra”, a 43-year-old woman who has requested anonymity. She alleges a priest raped her during confession when she was a 17-year-old novice nun.
“It’s very hard to talk about these things in Portugal,” a country where 80% of people say they are Catholic, said Alexandra, who is now a mother and works as a kitchen helper.
“I kept it secret for many years, but it became more and more difficult to cope with it alone,” she said in a telephone interview last week.
She found the courage to report her attacker to church authorities three years ago, but said she was ignored.
The bishop in charge did no more than pass on her complaint to the Vatican, which has still not responded, she said.
Manuel Clemente, the cardinal patriarch of Lisbon and the highest-ranking prelate in Portugal, said last April that he was ready to “recognise the errors of the past” and ask survivors for forgiveness.
“Bishops asking forgiveness doesn’t mean anything to me,” Alexandra said. “We don’t know if they mean it.” She felt sickened by the church and its cover-ups, she added.
The independent commission, at least, had afforded her an understanding ear and psychological support. It was “a good first step” for survivors who wanted to “break the wall of silence” that had surrounded them, she said.
“This has taken far too long,” Strecht quoted another anonymous victim as saying. “The church needs to cleanse itself.”