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  • March 2023 : Sexual abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church

An independent commission has validated 512 testimonies of child sexual abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church and estimated that there are at least 4,300 other victims. The abuse occurred between 1950 and 2022.

The final report was released in February 2023, and results revealed that the number of males (57.2%) is significantly higher than females (42.2%), with a current average age of 52.4 years. Testimonies were collected from people living in Portugal (88.5%), mainly from Lisbon, Porto, Braga, Setubal, and Leiria (coastal cities). Fifty-three percent of victims are Catholic and 25.8% practising Catholics.

Most of these children were abused between the ages of 10 and 14, 58.3% of the abuse occurred between the 1960s and 1990s, and 21.9% of cases occurred since 1991. 57.2% of the testimonies mention that abuse occurred on several occasions, and 27.5% for over a year. The abusers are mainly men (96.9%), 77% of cases involve “the priest” (p. 9-10), and many of the abusers are still active in the church (p. 19).

Notwithstanding, as the Commission points out, “the systemic nature of the abuse does not, however, apply to Church as a whole, as it reflects the behaviour of a minority of its members. The concealment by the abusers themselves was systemic, as were those above them in the hierarchy who knew of their actions.” (p. 20)

The Commission referred 25 cases to the Public Prosecutor and suggests, among other issues, adjusting the statute of limitations by increasing the age limit of the child victim and speeding up the courts’ assessment and response. The Church emphasises the importance of recognising the existence and extent of the problem, the observance of the “zero tolerance” concept proposed by the Pope, and the “moral duty” to denounce cases of alleged crimes.

It was only on March 3 that Portuguese Episcopal Conference (CEP) reacted. Some resistance and lack of diligence were observed in the discourse of Bishop José Ornelas, president of the CEP , as there was no commitment to immediately suspend clergy suspected of abusing minors. Similarly, the bishop of Lisbon, Manuel Clemente, stated that the Vatican could only arrest the suspected priests based on proven facts that are subject to contradiction.

Several sectors of society reacted to the Church’s position, including the President of the Republic. An immediate preventive suspension and compensatory measures (e.g., the financial compensation of the victims, as happened in France, Ireland, and Austria) were expected.

By their own decision and revealing some internal division of the Portuguese Church, the Bishop of the Azores and Archbishop of Évora suspended active priests suspected of sexually abusing minors.

The debate on what can be done, by the Church but also by civil society, in terms of prevention, compensation and reparation for victims is still ongoing.

Full Executive summary of the Commission for the study of child sexual abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church (in English)

D 13 mars 2023    AHelena Vilaça AMaria João Oliveira

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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