In Portugal, pedophile crime in the Church has claimed nearly 5,000 victims

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At least 4,815 minors have been sexually abused in the Portuguese Catholic Church since 1950, an independent commission concluded Monday. For its report, the commission heard more than 500 testimonies in 2022, but also researched the institution’s archives and spoke with its highest officials.

Thousands of victims in several decades. This is the conclusion of the report, published Monday, February 13, by the independent commission that investigated pedocriminality in the Portuguese Catholic Church.

“(The more than 500) testimonies allow us to arrive at a much larger network of victims, calculated at the minimum number of 4,815 victims,” said the coordinator of this commission of experts, child psychiatrist Pedro Strecht.

“The report released today (Monday) expresses a harsh and tragic reality. However, we believe that change is on the way,” reacted the president of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference (CEP), Bishop of Leiria-Fatima José Ornelas. “We ask forgiveness to all the victims,” he said, referring to “an open wound that hurts and shames us.

The Portuguese bishops will meet on March 3 to draw conclusions from the independent report and announce “concrete measures” to “prevent the repetition of any type of violence”.

For two hours, the members of the commission of experts presented, in a sometimes crude and detailed way, the lessons learned from the 512 validated testimonies, but also from their research in the Church’s archives and from their interviews with its highest officials.

“The magnitude of the numbers and the stories are very familiar to us”

“Unfortunately, the magnitude of the numbers and the stories are very familiar to us because we have heard them before in all corners of the world,” commented Jesuit Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and director of the Rome-based Institute of Anthropology for the Prevention of Abuse.

But the work of the independent Portuguese commission is also “a sign that the Church is capable of facing this deep wound,” he added, after attending the presentation of the report in Lisbon.

Faced with thousands of cases of sexual abuse by priests uncovered around the world and accusations of cover-ups by members of the clergy, Pope Francis has promised in 2019 to wage an “all-out battle” against pedophilia within the Church.

Expected in the Portuguese capital for the World Youth Day in early August, the pontiff could meet with victims, said recently the auxiliary bishop of Lisbon, Américo Aguiar, in charge of the organization of this global meeting of young Catholics.

At the end of 2021, the hierarchy of the Portuguese Church had charged a commission of independent experts to take the measure of the phenomenon of pedocriminality, as has already been done in countries such as Germany or France.

“Difficult to talk about” the subject in Portugal

“The majority of the people we have heard consider that there is no reparation possible. But they are waiting for an apology from their aggressor or from the Church as an institution,” explained the coordinator of the commission.

Almost all of the crimes reported to the independent commission are already statute-barred, but 25 testimonies have been forwarded to the public prosecutor’s office, said Pedro Strecht.

Among these rare cases is that of Alexandra, the middle name of a 43-year-old woman who wished to remain anonymous, who was raped by a priest during confession when she was a 17-year-old novice preparing for life as a nun.

“It’s very difficult to talk about the subject in Portugal,” where 80 percent of the population defines itself as Catholic, the mother told AFP last week. “I had been keeping this secret for many years, but I felt that it was becoming more and more difficult to deal with it alone,” she said in a telephone interview.

Waiting to hear what action the bishops will take with a mixture of hope and skepticism, Alexandra says the work of the independent commission was “a good start” for those seeking to “break the wall” of silence that has long surrounded them.

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