Investigation continues into alleged cover-up of abuse by top bishop

Portugal Resident [Lagoa, Portugal]

April 10, 2024

By Michael Bruxo

José Ornelas is suspected of covering up a case of sexual abuse 

An investigation into allegations that one of the country’s most senior bishops covered up sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is still ongoing, according to an announcement today by the office of the country’s attorney general.

In an update on investigations into allegations of sexual abuse in the Church by clerics or other people linked to the institution, the attorney general’s office clarified that the inquiry opened by prosecutors in the Guimarães section of the Department of Investigation and Criminal Action (DIAP) in Braga, and in the Lisbon DIAP, remains under investigation.

“The Guimarães case received a final judgement, with part of it being closed and a certificate being drawn up for further investigation,” the statement continues. “This certificate gave rise to an inquiry that is still under investigation.”

The office of public prosecutions confirmed in October 2022 that it was investigating José Ornelas, bishop of Leiria-Fátima and president of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference, for allegedly covering up sexual abuse, revealing that there had already been an investigation with possible links to this case in 2011.

According to Público newspaper, which broke the news of the alleged cover-up, in 2011, when Ornelas was head of the Congregation of Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, he was confronted by allegations that a teacher had committed sexual abuse at the Centro Polivalente Leão Dehon, an orphanage in Mozambique run by a Dehonian priest – with Ornelas being the high representative of the Dehonians to the Vatican and the world leader of this congregation.

Another Dehonian teacher, João Oliveira, is said to have informed Ornelas of the allegations, and received two letters from him “thanking him for ‘the warnings’ (and) saying that Father Cominotti (the priest who was accused) was not under his authority, but that of the diocese, and that there was no evidence against Father Ilario Verri (the head of the school in Mozambique),” reported Público.

In addition to the investigation launched at the end of September 2022 by the Lisbon DIAP, the attorney general’s office said at the time, there had already been an investigation in 2011 with possible links to this case.

In a statement, the Portuguese Episcopal Conference (CEP) stressed that Ornelas in 2011 “gave indications” that suspicions of abuse of children in an orphanage in Mozambique should be investigated by the authorities there, but that no evidence of “possible abuse” was found.

Ornelas, 68, has presided over the CEP since June 16, 2020, and was reappointed about a year ago for the 2023-2026 triennium; he has been bishop of Leiria-Fatima since March 13, 2022. He was superior general of the Dehonians from May 27, 2003 to June 6, 2015.

A specialist in Biblical Sciences, with a doctorate in Biblical Theology from Portugal’s Catholic University, he went on to do missionary training in Mozambique.

It was Ornelas who, at the end of 2021, announced the creation of an independent commission to study the extent of the sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church in Portugal, to be coordinated by child psychiatrist Pedro Strecht. The body’s final report, released in February 2023, revealed that it had sent 25 complaints of abuse to public prosecutors out of 512 validated testimonies among the 564 received, which it said pointed to a potential total of 4,815 victims in the period under review, since the 1950s.