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Portugal: Thousands of children abused by Catholic clergy

February 13, 2023

An inquiry found members of the Portuguese Catholic Church abused nearly 5,000 children since 1950, but authorities can only take action against some abusers.

People walk by a Catholic Church in Lisbon, Portugal,
Portuguese bishops established a panel a year ago to look into allegations of abuseImage: Pedro Nunes/REUTERS

Members of the Portuguese Catholic Church sexually abused at least 4,815 children over the past 70 years, a commission investigating the issue said in its final report on Monday.

The Portuguese inquiry, commissioned by the church in the staunchly Catholic country, published the results of its investigation after hearing from more than 500 victims.

"This testimony allows us to establish a much larger network of victims, at least 4,815," said Pedro Strecht, a psychiatrist who headed the Independent Committee for the Study of Child Abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church.

He said most perpetrators were priests, and the abuse occurred in Catholic schools, priests' homes, confessionals and other locations.

The report found most victims were boys, barely older than 11. The youngest victim was reportedly a 2-year-old child.

It called for decisive action by the judiciary and asked for psychological care for the victims and the suspension of the statute of limitations for 30 years.

Only a few cases criminally investigated

The statute of limitations has expired on most of the alleged cases but the committee sent the names of church members reported to the Portuguese Bishops Conference and to the police.

Police have already opened several inquiries based on the committee's initial work last year.

One of the cases was about a 43-year-old woman who said she was raped by a priest during confession when she was a 17-year-old novice nun.

"It's very hard to talk about these things in Portugal," a country where 80% of people say they are Catholic, she said.

"I kept it secret for many years but it became more and more difficult to cope with it alone," she told the AFP news agency.

She eventually reported her attacker to the church authorities but said she was "ignored."

"[We want] to pay a sincere tribute to those who were abuse victims during their childhood and dared to give a voice to silence," said Pedro Strecht, president of the Independent Commission for the Study of Sexual Abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church.

"They are much more than a statistic," he added.

Church prepared to 'take appropriate measures'

Portuguese bishops were due to discuss the commission's report next month.

The Catholic Church, which funded the commission's work, previously said it was prepared to "take appropriate measures."

Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Lisbon in August, where he is expected to meet some of the alleged victims, according to media reports. 

The pontiff promised in 2019 to root out pedophilia within the church.

Investigations have been launched in several countries, including Australia, France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands.

The Portuguese commission started its work in January last year after a report in France revealed around 3,000 priests and religious officials sexually abused over 200,000 children.

lo/fb (AP, AFP, EFE, Reuters)