A report published Monday by the Independent Commission for the Study of Sexual Abuse of Children in the Catholic Church in Portugal estimated there have been close to 5,000 victims of nearly 500 abusers in the local Church since 1950.
The commission began it's work in January 2022, and surveyed the whole of the country’s Catholic institutions, dioceses and religious orders, producing a nearly 500-page report, the first of its kind in the majority Catholic country.
In response, Bishop José Ornelas of Leiria-Fátima, the president of the Portuguese bishops’ conference, said that the commission’s report had detailed an “open wound which hurts and shames us” and promised measures by the bishops to enforce zero-tolerance on abuse in the local Church.
The report concluded with several recommendations, including extending the civil statute of limitations by several years and the empaneling of a second commission to continue its work, but stopped short of calling for an end to clerical celibacy or breaching the seal of confession.
The commission considered 512 victims’ testimonies that were validated as “credible,” out of a total of 564 received between January and Oct. 31, 2022.
Based on the testimonies, and the number of other victims each one claimed to know of, the commission estimated that at least a further 4,300 people were sexually abused, reaching the final number of 4,812. But the commission also concluded that its own final figure was almost certainly an underestimate, and said its finding were likely the "tip of the iceberg".
The report does not state the full number of suspected abusers, or how many of them were priests, though it does list the number of abusers per diocese, religious congregation, and institution, as well as specifying how many allegations were received by the commission directly, how many the diocese, congregation or institution itself reported to the commission, and how many were discovered by the commission team that went through Church archives.
The commission report also lists separately for each ecclesiastical institution the number of abuse instances involving clerics, male religious, female religious, and laypeople — giving a total number of 497 suspected abusers named in specific allegations, 412 of them priests.
The commission report acknowledged a lack of reliable data on the total number of active priests in Portugal during the period under study, but the number never seems to have exceeded 5,000, peaking at 4,969 in 1968.
For most of the crimes committed, the statute of limitations has run out. The commission did send 25 allegations to the civil authorities, although it pointed out that many of these will be difficult, or even impossible to prosecute, due to the lack of supporting evidence.
A further list of alleged abuser priests still in active ministry will be sent to the bishops’ conference by the end of February. All the names on this list, said Álvaro Laborinho Lúcio, a judge and the commission’s legal expert, are already on the list of allegations sent to prosecutors.
The head of the commission said that there are more than 100 names of suspected abuser priests on the list that is being prepared for the bishops. No further information regarding age or nature of abuse was given, but since only 25 cases were sent to prosecutors (with possible multiple offenses by the same priests), the majority of the alleged abusers have likely already died, or are no longer in ministry.
Much of the data shown in the report aligns with previous investigations in other Western countries. Perpetrators were overwhelmingly male (96%), with priests and male religious accounting for around 80% of alleged cases of abuse.
One significant difference compared with other countries is the proportion of female victims — 47%. That number is significantly higher than the percentage reported in similar reviews in other countries, according to Fr. Hans Zollner, director of a Rome think tank on abuse and safeguarding, who was present at the commission’s press conference.
The report also found that seven people had committed suicide due to the abuse they suffered. That number is based on the testimonies of relatives, as well as press reports.
‘The Church is the only thing in life I hate’
The commission’s report included several emotional, often graphic testimonies from victims who described how they were abused, the effect it had on them, and why they decided to come forward.
One victim recalled how he was raped by a priest during a five-day school trip when he was 12 years old. He and two classmates, all of whom he describes as quite shy, were sleeping together and every night the priest would come and take one of them to his own room.
Two of them were raped once, and one was raped twice, he told the commission, describing how on the third night one of the boys returned to the room in floods of tears.
“He didn’t say anything, and I didn’t tell him that I had been abused by that pervert the night before. I asked him if he was scared, and still crying he said yes, so I told him to lie in my bed with me and we could sleep together, so that is what we did, but he took so, so long to stop crying.”
“This was in the summer of 2000, we were on a school trip, by ourselves, far from home and from our parents. There was nobody to tell, so we consoled each other. I am in tears writing this, but I never heard from him again. School ended, we went our separate ways, and I never saw him again. I wonder where he is.”
Another victim, a girl, described being abused by a priest in the confessional at a Catholic school. She told her classmates, but the head religious sister of the school got wind of it and called her to the front of the class.
“She sent me to the kitchen to bring a soup spoon full of pepper, telling me not to drop a speck of it. I came back to class with the spoonful. She made me swallow it in front of the whole class. Because I was a sinner, and a liar, and I must be punished. In public. I can still recall the sensation of almost choking to death with the pepper in my throat, nose, lungs, eyes, ears… I felt violated for a second time on the same day.”
A third respondent described how as a girl she saw her brother being raped by a priest in a shed outside their house.
“I don’t think he ever told anybody about what I saw. What I saw wasn’t pretty, but I can’t die with this secret on my chest,” she said, going on to say that “he hated priests, so much so that he said that he didn’t want a priest at his funeral, he wanted to be left to go in peace, and that is what happened when he died, not long ago.”
A large number of respondents to the commission said that they no longer identified with the Church at all, with one going so far as to say: “I hate it. It is the only thing in life that I hate. The Church, the Creed, the beliefs, the people connected to it. Since I came of age, I have never visited a Church and I no longer believe in God.”
But a large number of participants told the commission they continued to identify as Catholic (53%). Of these, 27% said they were non-practicing, but 26% continued to practice their faith.
One woman, identified as having been born in 1991, said she felt fortunate to have had psychological support and for having made peace with the past. “I feel that God saved me, always, and that He gave me the strength to fight, even if I did always feel fragile and week,” she said. “I don’t feel anger, and I don’t blame anybody.”
“Today I realize that this wound opened my heart and helps me be more attentive to those who are more fragile, invisible, as I felt myself. It helps me to love and drives me to tell everybody that God is good, that he never leaves us alone, and that he gives us opportunities to begin again every day,” she told the commission.
An open wound
In his initial reaction to the report, Bishop José Ornelas, the chairman of the bishops’ conference, said that the revelations were an “open wound which hurts and shames us,” and reaffirmed promises of zero tolerance for abusers.
The past three years have been a period of rapid change in Portuguese dioceses’ handling of abuse allegations and their understanding of the necessity of transparency.
Nearly all dioceses now have local abuse commissions, despite some resistance — the current bishop of Oporto initially said it made as much sense to form a commission to study sexual abuse as it did to study the possibility of the city being struck by a meteorite, words for which he has since apologized.
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Unlike in other countries, especially in those where independent commissions were set up at the request of the state, rather than the Church, there was never any visible conflict or tension between the national commission members and the bishops.
On the contrary, the head of the commission, child psychiatrist Pedro Strecht, has consistently lauded the Church and thanked it for providing his team with everything necessary to do its job thoroughly.
And, also unlike in other countries, absent from the commission’s conclusions are recommendations to end celibacy, or to do away with the seal of confession. Commission members went out of their way to insist that sexual abuse is a problem that affects society as a whole, and that the entire Church should not be tainted by association with those who committed crimes.
This does not mean the bishops emerge from the report unscathed. The commission did criticize an attitude in the Church which failed to properly weigh the immense suffering of the victims whose testimony was collected, and an institutional covering up of cases for decades.
A fatal flaw?
When the national independent commission started collecting testimonies, Portugal’s diocesan commissions had received only around 20 allegations in about two years of existence. Set against the findings of the independent commission, this has led to the conclusion that survivors of abuse did not consider diocesan commissions, linked to the institutional Church with some being headed by bishops, to be trustworthy.
But an emerging criticism of the current independent report is its apparent lack of geographical diversity. The overwhelming majority of testimonies received came from major cities or more densely populated coastal dioceses, suggesting the report may under-report cases in more rural places.
The commission received fewer than 10 testimonies from 11 of the country’s dioceses — just over half of the 20 total dioceses nationally.
Some of these, such as the dioceses of Lamego, Viana do Castelo, Viseu, and Vila Real are still deeply Catholic parts of the country with more rural populations, where a priest would still be considered a revered authority figure today, and even more so in previous decades.
This is also true of the Diocese of Angra, which covers the deeply Catholic and impoverished archipelago of the Azores, and also of the Diocese of Funchal, which covers the island of Madeira, where no current residents contacted the commission, despite it being the location of the single largest clerical sexual abuse scandal in the recent history of the Church in Portugal. Nonetheless, some cases in both island dioceses were mentioned by people who now live elsewhere.
In 1992, Fr. Frederico Cunha, a Brazilian-born priest incardinated in Madeira, was arrested for murdering a teenager. During the investigation, police found a cache of photographs of naked boys in his house, and at his trial several young men said that he had abused them over several years, when they were minors. Convicted of murder and sexual abuse, Cunha served several years in jail but managed to escape and fled to Brazil, where he still lives and continues to protest his innocence. His bishop at the time, Teodoro de Faria, always defended him, claiming he was the victim of injustice.
Likely as a result of these geographical disparities, one of the recommendations the commission made at the end of its report is that the bishops empower a second commission to carry on its work.
The commission also recommended that the civil statute of limitations for cases of sexual abuse be extended, so that it should never run out before the victim turns 30, rather than the current age limit of 23.
Apologies and psychological support
While some victims have called for financial reparations, Portugal does not have a settlement culture. In one of only three cases of priests convicted of sexual abuse of minors in the past decade, a priest was given a suspended sentenced and ordered to pay compensation of 6,000 euros (around $6,400) for online abuse and sending graphic images of himself to underage girls online.
Few of the victims who contacted the commission even mentioned the possibilities of financial compensation from the Church, with most saying that what they really wanted was a heartfelt and personal apology, with several asking that the Church be made to pay for psychological and medical support. A more frequent request was for abusing priests to be laicized.
Fr. Zollner, a leading expert on clerical sexual abuse, said Monday that the independent report should be considered the beginning of a process, not the end.
“We now have a certain number of people who have been listened to, who filled out the questionnaire, but this is not the end. More victims will come forward, so let us continue to listen,” Zollner said.
“I believe that the Church in Portugal, as in many other countries, is seriously committed to this”, the priest said, adding that this listening attitude and concern for victims and their families should be seen as an integral part of the Church’s mission.
Speaking to journalists immediately after the report was made public, Bishop Ornelas reaffirmed the Church’s “zero tolerance” approach to abuse and apologized to “all victims, without exception, to those who bravely gave their witness, which had been silenced for so many years, and to those who still endure their pain in the depth of their hearts, unshared”.
The bishops will meet on March 3 to discuss the report and form a collective response.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify the proposed extension of the statute of limitations for victim-survivors of abuse.