Study on Sexual Abuse in the Church in Portugal 4800.webp

Study on Sexual Abuse in the Church in Portugal: 4800 Victims May Be

LISBON, Portugal (AP) – 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 with their stories, an expert panel studying historical 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 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 at an extraordinary meeting on March 3.

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

The report, criticized by some as long overdue, came four years after Pope Francis gathered church leaders from around the world at the Vatican to address the church’s sex abuse crisis.

This meeting came more than 30 years after the scandal first broke out in Ireland and Australia and 20 years after it hit the United States.

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.

The President of the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference, Bishop José Ornelas, asked forgiveness from the victims and apologized for the Church’s failure to grasp the scale of the problem.

Sexual abuse of children is a “heinous crime,” Ornelas said in a statement he read out later on Monday, adding: “It’s an open wound that pains us and embarrasses us.”

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.

Pedro Strecht, a psychiatrist who headed the panel in Portugal, said it estimated the true number of victims during the study 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.

Information about child sexual abuse found in church records should be considered “the tip of the iceberg,” the report said.

These records often do not directly relate to abuse, even when it is discussed, and many incidents appear to have been handled informally, the panel said.

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