An investigative commission has pinpointed over 100 Roman Catholic priests as potential perpetrators in an alleged child abuse scam in Portugal spanning over 70 years involving thousands of victims.
Jose Ornelas, head of the Bishops’ Conference, attended the final report’s presentation on Feb. 13 and told a news conference later that day the revelations were an “open wound that hurts and shames us.”
We ask forgiveness from all the victims: those who courageously gave their testimony, who were in silence for so many years, and those who still live with their pain in the depths of their hearts, without sharing it with anyone,” Ornelas said. He also described child sexual abuse as a “heinous crime.”
The commission said that at least 4,815 children were sexually abused by members — mostly priests — of the Roman Catholic Church in Portugal over the last 70 years.
“There is an approximate [number of accused priests], and it will clearly be more than 100,” child psychiatrist Pedro Strecht, who headed the commission, told SIC television.
Tip of the iceberg
It added that the findings were the “tip of the iceberg,” describing the 4,815 cases as the “absolute minimum” number of victims.
“[We want] to pay a sincere tribute to those who were abuse victims during their childhood and dared to give a voice to silence,” Strecht said, adding, “They are much more than a statistic.”
Among other recommendations, the investigators said the Church should denounce all alleged abuses, provide psychosocial support to victims and continue the investigation into the issue.
The commission started its work in January 2022 after a report in France revealed around 3,000 priests and religious officials sexually abused over 200,000 children.
Most perpetrators (77 percent) were priests, and 57 percent of the victims were male, Strecht said, adding that they were abused in Catholic schools, churches, priests’ homes, and confessionals, among other locations.
The majority of the sexual abuses took place when the children were aged 10-14, with the youngest victim being just two years old.
No witch hunt
“We apologize to all the victims,” Jose Ornelas said. Ornelas is himself being investigated by the public prosecutors for covering up sex abuse at an orphanage in Mozambique in 2011. However, he denies any wrongdoing.
Ornelas promised Portuguese bishops would meet on March 3 and would look for means to implement “more efficient and appropriate mechanisms” to prevent future abuses.
He also referred to Pope Francis’ guidelines in matters of child abuse stating that “abusers of minors cannot hold positions within the ministry as long as it is proven that the person is an abuser,” Ornelas said.
However, he added the Church would not conduct a “witch hunt” against its members.
To the U.S.-based support group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), these considerations didn’t go far enough. It called on Portuguese church officials to “prominently publish the name, photo, place of residence, and work history of abusive clergy.”
“Immediate action is needed,” the SNAP statement continued. “It includes the dismissal of any bishop, chancellor, vicar general, or other church hierarchs who is complicit in what has happened. Without change at the top, nothing will change,” it said.
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The commission said it was preparing a list of accused priests still working to send to the Church and to the public prosecutors’ office. Jose Ornelas said the institution was yet to receive the list.
Strecht said those on the list should be removed from their roles or at least should be banned from interacting with children and teenagers during the investigation.
A total of 25 of the testimonies heard by the commission were sent to the public prosecutor’s office for investigation, as all others were committed over 20 years ago, and legal proceedings can no longer be initiated.
The commission said the law should be changed so legal proceedings can be initiated for historic crimes committed 30 years ago.
The investigative commission, which says it is independent, was financed by the Catholic Church. Asked by Reuters in December 2021 if that could be a threat to the commission’s independence, Strecht said he would be the first to walk out and denounce it if the church intervened in the process.
Reuters contributed to this report.