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Portugal's Diocese of Funchal published last Wednesday a statement explaining that Pope Francis had laicized one of its priests, Frederico Marcos da Cunha.

The case is unusual because Cunha was convicted in 1993 of sexually abusing several minors and of murdering a 15-year-old boy.

So why did the Church take 31 years to conclude canonical proceedings against him?

Frederico Marcos da Cunha. public domain.

The case involving “Fr. Frederico” — as he is known in Portugal — was the first high-profile sex abuse scandal in the country, and includes especially sordid details. 

Born in Brazil, in 1950, Frederico Cunha became involved with Opus Angelorum, an association of the Christian faithful which has been linked to controversy. 

In the early 80s, Cunha lived at the Portuguese Pontifical College while studying in Rome. There, he befriended a Portuguese priest, Father Teodoro de Faria. 

That priest, Fr Faria, was in 1982 named Bishop of Funchal, with a diocese which covers the archipelago of Madeira. 

When Faria was appointed to the job, Cunha was living in Madeira, in an Opus Angelorum residence. 

Within a year, the new bishop ordained his Brazilian friend a priest, and made him his personal secretary.

According to a layperson from Madeira who has worked closely with victims of sexual abuse, and who has in depth knowledge about Fr. Cunha’s case, that is where the story gets strange. 

The source — who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on the record — explained that Cunha had applied previously to be accepted as a seminarian in other Portuguese dioceses, and had been rejected.

So “why did Bishop [Faria] decide to ordain him in Funchal? When he did, many other bishops who knew the candidate were shocked,” the source explained. 

“And what is even stranger is that he was not ordained in the cathedral, as per usual, but in a discreet ceremony in a remote chapel.” 

Skulls, photographs, and homicide

From early in his priestly life, Father Frederico’s behavior and habits made him unpopular among his peers. The priest had a penchant for decorative skulls, which he hung from the windshield of his black Volkswagen Beetle, on his black leather jacket and on his belt. He was also rumored in the diocese to drink excessively. 

After protests from the diocesan presbyterate about his position of influence, Bishop Faria removed him from the position of episcopal secretary, and made him a parish priest. After that, the bishop kept moving him, because of complaints from his parishioners.

The priest’s attraction to underage boys was also an open secret, according to news reports published at the time of his arrest.

According to prosecutors, the wayward priest became involved with one young man in particular, a 16-year-old boy called Miguel Noite. 

In court, prosecutors said that on May 1, 1992, the priest and Noite were driving to a place called Caniçal, when they found a 15-year-old boy walking by the side of the road. 

Several witnesses said they saw the boy — Luís Miguel Escórcio Correia — in the car with Fr. Cunha that evening. 

But the next morning, Correia was found dead at the bottom of a nearby cliff. 

At first, police thought Correia’s death might have been an accident — but an autopsy revealed that he had been badly beaten before falling from the cliff. 

Cunha was arrested, and then the full extent of what a detective would later describe as “habits unbefitting his office” became public. 

In the priest’s house, police found a collection of nude photographs of young local boys being abused, including one of a teenager wearing the priest’s own trademark sunglasses. A closeup of the lenses shows Cunha himself as the photographer. 

Police also found stacks of pornographic magazines, from a variety of countries, many of which contained explicit photographs of minors, including boys as young as 11, along with notes written by Miguel Noite on gay clubs he had visited in Amsterdam.


The former priest (right) spent five years in jail before absconding during a day release in 1998
Frederico Marcos da Cunha (right). public domain.

‘As innocent as Jesus Christ’

Despite the evidence against him, Fr. Cunha protested his innocence, and he was not alone. 

Bishop Faria also defended his priest. 

In one interview, the bishop went so far as to say that Cunha was “as innocent as Jesus Christ, who was unjustly attacked by the Jews.” 

The prosecutor, a practicing Catholic, would later say that he had come under intense pressure, from both Church and political quarters, to ensure the priest’s acquittal. 

Nevertheless, with photographic evidence of child sex abuse, witnesses who testified that Cunha had abused them, and the autopsy evidence, Cunha was convicted in 1993 of both sexual abuse of minors and the murder of Miguel Escórcio Correia. 

Cunha was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

That sentence was relatively light — just over half of the 25-year maximum sentence allowed under Portuguese law. The judge also ordered that priest was to be expelled from Portugal at the end of his prison term, but had to surrender his passport during his incarceration.

Despite Cunha’s conviction, Bishop Faria continued to insist that his priest was innocent and, therefore, he never initiated a canonical case. 

Bishop Faria, now 93 years old, resigned as bishop of Funchal in 2007, and was succeeded by Bishop António Carrilho, who also failed to initiate any canonical proceedings against Cunha during his 11 years leading the diocese.

Faria’s insistence on protecting and covering for Father Frederico led to suspicions as to his own possible involvement in the abuse. 

But a senior diocesan source, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the record, told The Pillar that in the diocese, most people believe “there is absolutely no chance of [Faria’s] having been involved [in abuse].” 

“The bishop had heard complaints from other priests about Frederico’s behavior, but these were mostly related to excessive drinking. His insistence on standing up for the priest was probably more related to a misguided belief that he could be reformed, and that with a scolding he might fall in line.” 

The Madeira layperson who spoke with The Pillar noted “there have been rumors that Bishop Teodoro was involved, but I can safely say he was not. At one point people said that he appeared in some of the photographs with young boys, but I personally know priests who saw the photographs and have guaranteed he was not.” 

So if the locals are right, how to explain the bishop’s attachment to the priest? 

“Those who knew Father Frederico said that he came from a highly intellectual background, and that he was also very intelligent and well-read. Bishop Teodoro was also an intellectual, and a good theologian, so he may have admired that in Frederico,” the layperson said.

Still, the source said that bishop had likely covered up abuse allegations against Cunha.

“If it seems clear that he was not directly involved in abuse, it is equally clear that he must have known about the allegations against Father Frederico, and that he covered for him, by transferring him from parish to parish. The whole situation was so bizarre, he had to have known,” the layperson said. 

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The fugitive

In 1998, as a reward for good behavior while incarcerated, Fr. Cunha was allowed a four-day prison furlough to be with his mother, who was in Lisbon.

But the pair drove to Madrid, in Spain, and then — because Cunha was a Brazilian citizen — he was able to use a new passport issued by the Brazilian embassy in Lisbon, and boarded a flight to Rio de Janeiro. 

The Portuguese government lodged an official complaint with its Brazilian counterpart for having issued a passport to a convicted criminal, arguing that Brazilian diplomats were aware of his status, since embassy staff had visited him in jail. 

Brazil does not have an extradition agreement with Portugal, and as far as is known, Cunha continues to live in Rio de Janeiro, with his mother. In a 2015 interview with Portuguese newspaper Sol, Cunha stated that he continued to celebrate private Masses.

When Bishop Nuno Brás became diocesan bishop of Funchal in 2019, Father Frederico had become a distant memory for most Portuguese Catholics, and a symbol of the era when the island of Madeira was popular among sex tourists. 

“Sexual abuse of minors was rife on the island until the 1990s, a direct result of extreme poverty. The island, still largely undeveloped at the time, was known as a popular holiday destination for pedophiles, and there was also a lot of abuse within families. That has changed radically nowadays,” the senior diocesan source told The Pillar.

The Madeira layperson with knowledge of the case agreed: “Many of [Cunha’s] victims were kids from unstructured families, homes wracked by domestic violence, where there was no love or affection, and lots of poverty. Frederico exploited all of this. His intelligence made him even more dangerous as a predator. With the reputation that Madeira had at the time, and Frederico’s inclinations, it would not be surprising if he moved there on purpose because of that.”

The commission

In 2022, the Portuguese bishops named an independent commission to study the problem of clerical sexual abuse in the country.

The commission’s report estimated the existence of around 5000 victims over the past 70 years

And as it finished its work, the commission gave each diocesan bishop a list of alleged abusers in his diocese. 

The Diocese of Funchal’s list had four names: one did not correspond to any known priest, and the remaining three were not in active ministry, the diocese explained. Cunha was one of those three.

By the time the diocese got the list, Cunha had not been an active priest in Madeira for more than 30 years, and his whereabouts were unknown, but he was officially still incardinated in the diocese, and his faculties had never been removed. 

In April 2023, Bishop Nuno Brás wrote to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, outlining the situation. Following a request from the DDF, he sent all the available information on the case. 

After the file was reviewed at the Vatican, the Funchal diocese was notified last month — on Feb. 16 — that Pope Francis had decided to dismiss Frederico Cunha from the clerical state.

Sources told The Pillar that the Diocese of Funchal asked the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro if it had a current address for the fugitive priest, to notify him of his laicization. 

But with a negative reply, the DDF ordered the Funchal diocese to publish a statement on its website with the Vatican’s decision. 

While it comes three decades late, the laicization of Frederico da Cunha is seen in Portugal as a more tangible result of the independent commission’s work. 

On the whole, the commission identified 114 alleged abusers, mostly priests, but also four laymen and two nuns. Almost 40% of those alleged abusers had already died when the commission identified them, nine were unknown in their supposed dioceses or orders, and 16 were no longer in active ministry. 

Only 15 active Portuguese priests were investigated, including one, from the Diocese of Viseu, who had already been provisionally removed from ministry after being charged with soliciting and assaulting a 14-year-old-boy. That priest has since been convicted in civil court and a canonical conviction will likely follow. 

In the case of five other priests identified by the commission, their dioceses are reportedly waiting for civil authorities to conclude criminal abuse investigations, before proceeding with canonical cases. 

The fact that civil authorities have not yet dismissed allegations against those priests suggests that charges are likely to be filed.

The remaining priests were either acquitted, or had their cases closed for lack of evidence. In many cases the alleged victims did not come forward, and since the independent commission had pledged not to reveal victims’ identities, the diocesan and civil authorities claimed there was nothing they could do.

Meanwhile the statute of limitations on Frederico da Cunha’s flight from justice in Portugal expired in 2018. 

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