Sex abuse report casts shadow over pope’s Portugal visit

Agence France Presse [Paris, France]

July 30, 2023

Pope Francis heads to Portugal next week for a global gathering of young Catholics as the country grapples with a report into decades of sexual abuse of children by members of the Church.

The 86-year-old pontiff arrives in Lisbon on Wednesday and is expected to meet in private with victims of clergy abuse during his five-day visit to attend World Youth Day.

Organisers expect up to one million people will take part in the event which is being held for the first time since 2019 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It comes after an independent commission published a report in February that found “at least” 4,815 children were sexually abused by clergy members in the country — mostly priests — since 1950.

The inquiry, based on testimony from more than 500 victims, concluded Portugal’s Church hierarchy “systematically” tried to conceal the abuse.

The results of the inquiry, commissioned by the Church in Portugal, has tainted the institution in the country where 80 percent of its population of some 10 million people identify as Roman Catholic.

A poll by Lisbon’s Catholic University of Portugal found 68 percent of all Portuguese feel the Church’s image has deteriorated.

The Portugal Church hierarchy has apologised to the victims and recognised that “the culture of the Church” must change.

But it has appeared divided, with some bishops more reluctant than others to suspend priests targeted by complaints.

End of taboo

Following the release of the report the Church set up a new independent commission to support abuse victims, collect new complaints and accompany abusers to prevent them from re-offending.

“The media coverage of the subject has taken it out of the closet of taboos,” psychologist Rute Agulhas, the coordinator of the group, told AFP, adding it has received 20 fresh complaints since it was founded.

But Filipa Almeida, one of the three founders of Portugal’s first association representing victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, said reforms are coming too slowly.

“The little that has been done is thanks to the pressure of the media,” the 43-year-old from the central region of Coimbra added.

Almeida was raped by a priest in a church confessional when she was 17. She said she is disappointed not to have been invited to participate in the pope’s meeting with abuse victims.

“It would be important to share with him our feelings and, above all, to share with him our proposals,” she told AFP.

The Portuguese Bishops’ Conference said in a statement that it would be a “private meeting” and “no prior information will be communicated to preserve the identity of the victims”.

‘First step’

Thousands of reports of paedophilia within the Catholic Church have surfaced around the world in recent years, posing a challenge for the pontiff.

Pope Francis admitted in 2018 he made “grave errors” in judgement in his handling of a clerical abuse scandal in Chile and invited the abuse victims he had discredited to Rome to ask for their forgiveness.

He held an unprecedented summit on clerical sexual abuse the following year and has enacted reforms that include new obligations to report abuse and cover-ups.

Organisers of the World Youth Day in Portugal have asked the Portuguese Association for Victim Support (APAV) to train event staff and volunteers to handle a report of sexual abuse.

The organisation will be present at the two sites where pilgrims are expected to gather in large numbers to offer emotional or legal support to anyone who needs it, said Carla Ferreira, who is in charge of child sexual abuse issues at APAV.

“What we want within the Catholic Church is what we want for the whole of society: a society that does not tolerate and is not complicit in situations of violence,” she told AFP.

“What we are seeing is the first step and it’s going to take a lot more,” she added.