Ecclesiastical Church Sexual Abuse Study in Portugal: Possible 4,800 Victims

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — More than 4,800 individuals may have been victims of child sexual abuse in Portugal’s Catholic Church and 512 alleged victims have already come forward to speak out, according to a panel of experts investigating historical abuse in the church.

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

Senior clergy sat in the front row of the auditorium where panelists read some of the harrowing accounts of alleged abuse in their final report. There were vivid and shocking descriptions.

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

“We’ve seen and heard things that we can’t ignore,” he told reporters. “It is a dramatic combination of circumstances. It won’t be easy to get over that.”

The Independent Commission for the Study of Child Abuse in the Catholic Church, set up just over a year ago by Portuguese bishops, investigated alleged cases from as far back as 1950. The panel released its final report on Monday. Portuguese bishops will discuss the report next month.

In most cases, the statute of limitations has expired. Only 25 allegations were passed on to prosecutors, the panel said.

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

That meeting was held 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 superiors in many parts of Europe at the time continued to deny the existence of clergy sexual abuse or urged that little weight be given to the issue.

Pedro Strecht, a psychiatrist who headed the panel in Portugal, said the true number of victims was estimated to be at least 4,815 during that period. He did not explain how the extrapolation came about.

The panel does not publish the names of the victims, the identities of the alleged abusers or the places where the abuse allegedly took place. However, it is to send a list to the bishops of alleged abusers who are still active in the church by the end of the month.

The final report contains a separate – and confidential – appendix with all the names of Church members reported to the committee, which is sent to the Portuguese Episcopal Conference and to the police.

The Portuguese church has not said whether it intends to compensate any victims.

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

The report said 77% of the abusers were priests, while other perpetrators had ties 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 occurred when the victims were still in early adolescence.

It said 48% of those who came forward had spoken up about the abuse for the first time. Most of the alleged victims were men, although 47% were women, the report said.

It said there were places in Portugal, such as some seminaries and religious institutions, that were “real black spots” for abuse.

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

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