Catholic clergy in Portugal have abused nearly 5,000 children since 1950, an independent commission said on Monday, announcing its findings after hearing hundreds of victim accounts.
Thousands of reports of paedophilia within the Catholic Church have surfaced around the world and Pope Francis is under pressure to tackle the scandal.
The Portuguese inquiry, commissioned by the Church in the staunchly Catholic country, published the results of its investigation after hearing from more than 500 victims.
“This testimony allows us to establish a much larger network of victims, at least 4,815,” child psychiatrist Pedro Strecht told a press conference in Lisbon.
In October, the team of six experts said it had recorded 424 legitimate accounts from presumed victims but warned that their testimony indicated the total number of victims was “much larger”.
The accounts revealed “serious situations which persisted for decades … and in some cases reached epidemic proportions”, it said at the time.
The time limit for bringing charges has already expired for the vast majority of alleged offences, but 25 cases have been transferred police and several inquiries have already been opened.
One of these rare cases concerns “Alexandra”, a 43-year-old woman who has requested anonymity. She alleges she was raped by a priest during confession when she was a 17-year-old novice nun.
‘Ignored and sickened’
“It’s very hard to talk about these things in Portugal”, a country where 80 percent of people say they are Catholic, said Alexandra, who is now a mother, trained in IT and works as a kitchen helper.
“I kept it secret for many years but it became more and more difficult to cope with it alone,” she told AFP in a telephone interview.
She eventually reported her attacker to the Church authorities but said she was “ignored”. The bishop in charge did nothing other than pass on her complaint to the Vatican, which has still not responded.
Three years on, she says she has found in the independent commission an understanding ear and the psychological support she needs.
In April last year, Manuel Clemente, the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon and the highest-ranking prelate in Portugal, said he was prepared to “recognise the errors of the past” and ask the victims for “forgiveness”.
“Bishops asking forgiveness doesn’t mean anything to me. We don’t know if they mean it,” retorted Alexandra, who said she felt “sickened” by the Church and its cover-ups of sexual abuse.
‘Rid the Church of this scourge’
Pope Francis, who is to visit Lisbon in August, may meet some of the alleged victims, the Auxiliary Bishop of Lisbon, Americo Aguiar, said recently.
Faced with thousands of cases of clergy sex abuse that have come to light around the world and the accusations of cover-ups, the pontiff promised in 2019 to root out paedophilia within the Church.
He is under pressure to tackle the scandal and investigations have been launched in several countries, including Australia, France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands.
Portugal’s bishops will convene in March to draw conclusions from the independent report and “rid the Church of this scourge as much as possible”, Father Manuel Barbosa, a senior member of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference, said in January.
For Alexandra, who is anticipating the bishops’ response with a mix of hope and scepticism, the independent commission represents “a good first step” for victims who want to “break the wall of silence” that has surrounded them for so long.