Portugal’s Clergy Abuse Commission wants more help from church officials

People are seen at Igreja dos Clérigos (“Church of the Clergy”) in Porto, Portugal, in January 2019. (Dreamstime/Ksenija2015)

After four months of activity, an independent commission created by Portuguese bishops to investigate child abuse has received at least 326 allegations of abuse.

The fact that 214 of them were collected during the first month of operation demonstrates that there has been a significant drop in the rate of testimonies in recent months. Some members of the group are now calling on bishops across the country to raise awareness of their work and encourage victims of abuse to come forward.

It was the initiative of the Portuguese episcopal conference to create the commission, a decision taken in November 2021 after the publication of a report on abuse and cover-up in the French church which shocked many people across the country. Europe.

A month earlier, the task force investigating abuse in Catholic institutions in France released the results of its investigation, estimating that some 216,000 people had suffered abuse in the French Church since 1950. Many Portuguese Catholics soon wondered what a similar investigation would uncover about their church’s past.

While many Catholics worried about the issue, some bishops seemed to downplay the French Church’s effort, recalled António Marujo, a Portuguese journalist specializing in religion.

António Marujo, director of 7 Margens, a Portuguese online newspaper on religion (Courtesy of António Marujo)

António Marujo, director of 7 Margens, a Portuguese online newspaper on religion (Courtesy of António Marujo)

“An auxiliary bishop of Lisbon told the press that other Portuguese institutions should first carry out this type of investigation, otherwise an investigation by the church would not make sense. Many in society did not like that kind of reaction,” he told NCR.

The apparent refusal of some Portuguese bishops to act with more energy was not new. When Pope Francis mandated in 2019 that all priests and bishops report suspicions of abuse or cover-up, Porto Bishop Manuel Linda told a radio station that he had no intention of creating a commission of inquiry in his diocese for the same reason that “no one creates, for example, a committee to study the effects of the impact of a meteorite in the city of Porto.”

“Is it possible for a meteorite to fall here? Yes. Is it justifiable to create a committee like this? Maybe not,” Linda continued.

In recent years, Portuguese Catholics have increased criticism of comments like those of the Bishop of Porto. Last November, a group of more than 270 Catholics issued a public letter to bishops calling for the urgent creation of a committee to investigate child abuse.

The document stated in strong language that the bishops “should align themselves with the directives of Pope Francis” and launch an independent investigation into cases of abuse perpetrated by clergy or lay Catholics over the past 50 years.

“The current situation of public unrest has a strong potential to generate anti-ecclesial sentiments, to accelerate people’s estrangement from religious life and to degrade society’s relationship with the Church,” the letter reads.

Bishops arrive for a mass celebrated by Pope Francis at the Our Lady of Fatima sanctuary in Portugal on May 13, 2017. (CNS/Reuters/Pedro Nunes)

Bishops arrive for a mass celebrated by Pope Francis at the Our Lady of Fatima sanctuary in Portugal on May 13, 2017. (CNS/Reuters/Pedro Nunes)

With the support of the Bishop of Leiria-Fátima José Ornelas Carvalho, president of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference, the prelates held a meeting during the November 2021 assembly to discuss the request of the authors of the letters.

It was a rather unique moment in a society in which Catholics never publicly disagreed with their bishops, Marujo said.

“At least since the 1980s, such a high number of Catholics have not publicly expressed their opposition to the hierarchy. Concretely, we had no Catholic public opinion in Portugal, which now seems to be changing”, a- he declared.

Marujo’s online journal on religion in Portugal, called 7 Margens, which has been giving a voice to dissident members of the Catholic Church for three years, is seen as one of the catalysts for this movement.

The bishops’ abuse commission has six members: two psychiatrists (one of whom specializes in children’s issues), a social worker, a sociologist, a director and a former Portuguese justice minister. The task force acted on several fronts: receiving testimonies from victims, researching cases of abuse by church members, analyzing church records and interviewing bishops.

The period studied — the same as in the French initiative, 1950-2022 — reflects the idea of ​​obtaining information from the Estado Novo dictatorship (between 1933 and 1974, Portugal was ruled by the dictators António de Oliveira Salazar and Marcello Caetano) and the democratic period opened by the Carnation Revolution in 1974.

Ana Nunes de Almeida, one of the commission members, suggested that there may have been more cases of abuse during the dictatorship.

“A regime in which the authorities cannot be questioned, a society lacking freedom and opposed to change certainly does not contribute to the solution of problems such as child abuse,” said de Almeida, professor of social sciences. at the University of Lisbon, specializing in childhood.

The committee of bishops must complete its work in December. De Almeida said the group didn’t have the funding or the time frame to conduct quantitative research, so it was instead focused on doing an “in-depth analysis of child abuse inside the church.” , with “victims center stage”.

Psychiatrist Daniel Sampaio, retired professor of medicine at the University of Lisbon (Courtesy of Daniel Sampaio)

Psychiatrist Daniel Sampaio, retired professor of medicine at the University of Lisbon (Courtesy of Daniel Sampaio)

De Almeida and psychiatrist Daniel Sampaio, a retired professor of medicine at the University of Lisbon and another member of the commission, used the word “impressive” to describe the testimonies heard so far.

“The social and psychological impact of the abuse lingers over time, sometimes for a lifetime. These are traumatized people who, in most cases, have not spoken to anyone about what happened, now finding opportunity to speak,” Sampaio told NCR.

Victims can reach the commission through its website, by mail, by phone or in person. They are not required to provide their names.

De Almeida said most of the alleged victims are men, ranging in age from 15 to over 80, and from across the country. Portuguese people living in other European countries, former African colonies, Brazil and the United States also testified.

“There is a massive presence of people of Portuguese descent in the Boston area, and some of them have been abused by Portuguese priests working in the United States,” she said.

According to Portuguese law, the statute of limitations for crimes related to child abuse expires after 20 years. Testimonies regarding cases of abuse that occurred less than 20 years ago are given to authorities, as required by Portuguese mandatory reporting laws. So far there have been 16 such cases.

De Almeida said the commission asks victims who testify what kind of reparations they want to see from the church.

“People want the church to acknowledge the problem exists, apologize and take action to prevent further cases,” she said.

Ana Nunes de Almeida, professor of social sciences at the University of Lisbon in Portugal (Courtesy of Ana Nunes de Almeida)

Ana Nunes de Almeida, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon (Courtesy of Ana Nunes de Almeida)

De Almeida described the commission’s relationship with the 21 Portuguese bishops as “cordial,” but she said while some bishops have been very helpful, a number have been indifferent – and others don’t. clearly not the work of the commission.

“We are independent, and that can cause discomfort. After all, our work won’t produce good news,” she said.

On several occasions, members of the group have publicly called for greater collaboration of the Church in their work. Recently, Álvaro Laborinho Lúcio, Portugal’s former justice minister and member of the commission, urged the church to be “transparent” about abuses and to avoid promoting “the cover-up of the cover-up”.

“The Portuguese church should be more involved in the process. They should make our contacts known everywhere and above all encourage people… to give their testimony,” Sampaio said.

Marujo said a sense of clericalism is still very strong in Portugal and has helped silence cases of abuse. But the creation of the task force is a sign that things are starting to change, he said.

“Civil society is starting to understand that they need to discuss child abuse,” he said.

De Almeida said the church has a great opportunity to take the lead in this social transformation.

“Combating child abuse is a matter of civilization,” she said. “The church can demonstrate that it is deeply committed to changing the reality of our country.

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