Portuguese bishops offer mixed reactions to abuse report

Crux [Denver CO]

March 10, 2023

By Eduardo Campos Lima

Two dioceses in Portugal decided to suspend priests accused of child abuse by an independent commission investigating decades of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

The Diocese of Angra, in the Azores, suspended two priests. The Diocese of Evora received charges against two priests as well, but one of them is deceased. The cases involve the sexual abuse of seminarians.

The commission, installed by the Portuguese episcopate in 2021, received hundreds of witness testimonies since January of last year. In February, the group, formed by professionals in different fields, announced that at least 4,815 cases of abuse occurred over 70 years in Catholic institutions.

Most of the accused abusers were priests – 77 percent. The average age of the victims was 11, and 52.7 percent of them were boys. The commission sent 25 cases to prosecutors along with the names of the accused.

While the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference declared there should be no tolerance for abuse, a few bishops have questioned the findings of the commission.

Cardinal Manuel Clemente of Lisbon said on February 5 that no priests could be suspended without “facts that had been proved.”

“What the independent commission gave us was a list of names. If such list is fulfilled with facts, both we and the civil authorities will be able to act,” Clemente told the press.

On March 3, the conference’s president, Bishop José Ornelas Carvalho of Leiria-Fátima, gave a similar message after a meeting of the episcopate called to debate the issue.

“Given that it is a list of names without any other characterization, it is difficult [to proceed with immediate punishment]. That is why such investigation demands redoubled efforts,” he told the press.

The weak response by the bishops has disappointed many in Portugal, including one member of the commission, Psychiatrist Daniel Sampaio.

“I don’t have much hope that change will come from the Church’s hierarchy. The bishops’ voices revealed little empathy with the victims and a great effort to defend their resistance to change,” he told Crux.

Sampaio, a retired professor at the University of Lisbon’s Medical School, counts on “Progressive Catholic movements” to transform the current situation.

Indeed, a group of lay Catholic organizations and individuals has been pressuring the episcopate to adopt policies in order to prevent abuse. In a document released last week titled Letter to the bishops of Portugal about the changes that we all need to do, six Catholic movements and 219 individuals asked the episcopate to take immediate, short-term, and medium-term measures inspired by the commission’s report.

The urgent actions include the creation of mechanisms to provide psychological and psychiatric help to the victims, the creation of a new commission on abuse – one that will follow the steps of the previous one and will keep receiving accusations by victims –, and the pursuit of a working relationship with the Vatican to study the problem.

Within 60 days all abusers should be suspended, said the letter. When “considered guilty under the light of the Christian morals, regardless of potential juridical suits, [they must] be dismissed from their duties.” In the case of clergy, they should be laicized, the letter says. Bishops who covered up cases of abuse must be removed from office as well.

The medium-term measures encompass the need to promote the study of the commission’s report among pastoral workers and the creations of a guidebook on abuse prevention.

“[It must] be carried out an in-depth reflection on the negative impact that the distorted perception of human sexuality has been created throughout the Church, with the help of external experts,” the text added.

The abusers, the signatories argued, must be accompanied and given psychological and psychiatric treatment.

“These are some of the tasks that we consider urgent in the long journey of permanent reform that the Gospel and Pope Francis challenge us to take and that we so much need in order to be coherent in this Lent,” the signatories said, demanding a less “authoritarian, clericalist, and arrogant” Church.

Sérgio Dias Branco, a Film Studies professor at the University of Coimbra and a lay Dominican, was one of the letter’s signatories. He considers that the “at times contradictory” declartions by the bishops are not helpful and that it would be important that the Church “holds in more respect the commission’s report and its information.”

“We have to recognize that our bishops are under tremendous pressure. But they have to feel and know that they are not alone, that the whole Church as a community is being called to deal with this problem. To a great extent, the letter also had such intention,” he told Crux.

Dias Branco said he feels “saddened and immensely angry” as a Catholic to know of the history of abuses perpetrated by church members.

“The moral condemnation of such abuses must be unequivocal. There should be no place to any kind of relativization,” he said, adding that he hopes that from now on “the priority should be to listen to and to support the victims.”

Echoing the words of the letter, he recalled that Pope Francis has been pushing the fact that a policy of zero tolerance on abuse must entail the adoption of a set of concrete actions, which must include a coherent reflection on the causes of the problem.

“We only arrived at this point because something very important was done: The creation of an independent commission, which was the result of pressures coming from inside and from outside the Church. Such pressures continue and will lead to changes,” he said.