Study on sexual abuse in the church in Portugal: the number of victims could be 4,800

A committee looking into historical child abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church says 512 alleged victims have come forward, but a report by the panel of experts warned the true number is likely higher than 4,000

LISBON, Portugal – More than 4,800 people may have been victims of child abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church and 512 alleged victims have already come forward to speak, a panel of experts studying historic abuse in the church said on Monday .

Senior Portuguese church officials had previously claimed only a handful of cases had emerged.

Senior clergymen sat in the front row of the auditorium, where panel members read some of the harrowing reports of alleged abuse included in their final report. There were vivid and shocking descriptions.

The head of the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference, Bishop José Ornelas, said church authorities would study the panel’s 500-page report before giving an official response.

“We have seen and heard things that we cannot ignore,” he told reporters. “It’s a dramatic constellation of circumstances. It won’t be easy to get over it.”

The Independent Committee to Investigate Child Abuse in the Catholic Church, set up by Portuguese bishops just over a year ago, has been dealing with suspected cases since 1950. Portuguese bishops are scheduled to discuss the report next month.

The panel regretted that the Vatican had taken so long to grant access to church archives. The approval didn’t come until October, giving the panel just three months to review written evidence of abuse.

The statute of limitations has expired in most of the alleged cases. Only 25 allegations were referred to prosecutors, the panel said.

Bishops and other Catholic leaders in many parts of Europe at the time continued to deny that clergy sexual abuse existed, or insisted that the problem was given little attention.

Pedro Strecht, a psychiatrist who headed the panel in Portugal, said it estimated the true number of victims during the period was at least 4,815. This extrapolation was made to potential other victims mentioned by the victims who came forward.

The panel does not release the names of the victims, the identities of the alleged perpetrators, or the locations where the abuse is said to have taken place. However, she should send the bishops a list of alleged perpetrators who are still active in the church by the end of the month.

The final report includes a separate – and confidential – appendix with all the names of church members reported to the committee, which is sent to the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference and to the police.

The Portuguese Church has not commented on whether it intends to pay compensation to victims.

The six-member committee included psychiatrists, a former Supreme Court justice and a social worker.

According to the report, 77% of the perpetrators were priests, while other perpetrators were linked to church institutions. It added that 77% of victims did not report the abuse to church officials and only 4% went to the police. Most of the abuse took place when the victims were in their early teens.

It said 48% of those who came forward spoke about the abuse for the first time. Most of the alleged victims were male, although 47% were female, the report said.

It said there are places in Portugal, like some seminaries and religious institutions, that are “real hotspots” for abuse.

The panel recommended extending the statute of limitations for such crimes from the current 23 years to at least 30 years.

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