LISBON, Feb 13 (Reuters) – At least 4,815 children have been sexually abused by members of the Portuguese Catholic Church – mainly priests – over the past 70 years, the commission of inquiry said in a report on Monday, adding the findings were “the tip of the iceberg.” “.
“(We want) to pay a sincere tribute to those who were victims of childhood abuse and who dared to give the silence a voice,” said child psychiatrist Pedro Strecht, who led the commission. “They are much more than a statistic.”
Strecht said the 4,815 cases were the “absolute minimum number” of victims of clerical sexual abuse in Portugal since 1950. “These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
Most of the perpetrators (77%) were priests and 57% of the victims were men, Strecht said, adding that they were abused in Catholic schools, churches, priests’ homes, confessionals, among others.
The majority of sexual assaults occurred between the ages of 10 and 14, with the youngest victim being just two years old.
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Jose Ornelas, President of the Bishops’ Conference, attended the presentation of the final report and later on Monday told a press conference that the revelations were an “open wound that pains and shames us”.
Ornelas said Portuguese bishops would meet on March 3 and consider implementing “more efficient and appropriate mechanisms” to prevent future abuses.
Among other recommendations, the commission said the church should denounce all alleged abuses, provide psychosocial support to victims and continue investigating the issue.
‘LOOK IN THE PAST’
Hans Zoller, the Vatican official in charge of child sexual abuse cases, also attended the event in Lisbon. He said it was important “to keep listening to the victims because this will not be the end”.
“There will be other victims who will come forward,” he said, adding that it is now up to the bishops’ conference to update Pope Francis on the report. “We (the Church) must… look to the past.”
The Portuguese Catholic Church has been rocked over the past year by cases of alleged sexual abuse cover-ups, including by bishops who remain active in church functions. The commission said it was preparing a list of accused priests who are still working.
“We apologize to all the victims,” Ornelas, himself prosecutors are investigating for covering up sexual abuse at an orphanage in Mozambique in 2011. He denies any wrongdoing.
The Portuguese commission began work in January 2022 after a report in France revealed that around 3,000 priests and religious officials had sexually abused over 200,000 children.
The allegations of abuse come from people of all backgrounds, from all regions of the country and also from Portuguese nationals living in other countries in Europe, Africa and America.
The commission spoke to over 500 victims, analyzed historical church documents, and interviewed bishops and other ministers.
A total of 25 of the witnesses interrogated by the commission were referred to the public prosecutor’s office for investigation, since all others were committed more than 20 years ago and no further legal proceedings can be initiated.
The commission said the law should be amended to allow trials for historic crimes committed 30 years ago.
The commission, which poses as independent, was funded by the Catholic Church. When asked by Reuters in December 2021 if this could pose a threat to the commission’s independence, Strecht said he was the first to go out and denounce them if the church intervened in the process.
Reporting by Catarina Demony; Edited by Andrei Khalip, Jon Boyle, Mike Harrison and Hugh Lawson
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