Portuguese bishops establish commission to look into sex abuse

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ROME — Portugal’s bishops held their plenary assembly Nov. 8-11 in Fatima, the setting of the famous Marian apparitions in 1917, with their reflections centered on clerical sexual abuse and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Together with the intentions, concerns and hopes of the churches over which we preside and of the country in which we live, of the world in which we find ourselves, we wanted to make a heartfelt and prayerful remembrance of those who departed from this world, as direct and indirect victims of the pandemic that has been afflicting the world for almost two years,” said Bishop José Ornelas, president of the Portuguese bishops’ conference (CEP), during the closing Mass.

He also remembered “the pain of the victims of all pandemics” and of “abuses of all kinds.”

“These are not easy times, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and so many other pandemics, crises and dramas that have permeated the work of these days of the Assembly of the Bishops’ Conference, particularly the suffering of the most fragile, whether through illness, the nascent age or its sunset, the problems of our family, society, the Church, the planet we inhabit,” the prelate said.

Earlier this month, Portugal’s parliament legalized euthanasia, allowing doctors to help patients in “grave, incurable and irreversible” conditions to end their lives.

Clerical sexual abuse, at the center of the discussions

The establishment of a national coordinating group of 21 diocesan commissions for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults is one of the measures that was announced by the bishops Thursday afternoon, at the end of their assembly.

The commission aims at the “civil and canonical accompaniment” of victims and “the study in order to establish the historical background of this serious issue,” as well as the creation of “a permanent national listening service.”

“The Assembly also expressed a vote of confidence in the Portuguese clergy who, with their availability and dedication, continue to serve the Church in their pastoral ministry,” said the final communiqué of the CEP, released Thursday afternoon during a press conference with Ornelas.

According to CEP, this coordinating group will have “real independence” and will be able to investigate clerical sexual abuse in Portugal, much like the commission in France that found over 200,000 minors were abused in the French Church. The French independent investigative commission was set up in 2018 at the request of the bishops, in response to criticism of their handling of abuse cases.

Ornelas told reporters that there was “unanimity” among the Portuguese bishops on the need to “make clarity” on this issue.

“We want this commission to get to the bottom of the issues,” the bishop said.

On Monday, a group of more than 250 Catholics had sent a letter to the bishops asking for an independent investigation into abuse within the Church, arguing that “there is no alternative,” and that the bishops “must take the initiative to organize an independent investigation into crimes of sexual abuse in the Church.”

The document, signed by people such as the writer Alice Vieira, politician José Manuel Pureza, and the former president of Caritas, Eugénio Fonseca, was persuasive: “If we want to maintain a dialogue with the society to which we belong and which we serve, there is no alternative!”

Ornelas also highlighted the work diocesan commissions have done thus far, made up especially of lay people qualified in various areas such as law, psychiatry and psychology. Not all the members of these commissions are Catholic.

The prelate said the bishops want “clarity” and “honesty” when it comes to discovering how clerical abuse has been dealt with and the way cases have been handled.

He rejected any intention to “cover anything up,” promising instead to respect the victims, “in their individuality” and to avoid “partial and hasty solutions.”

“We will do everything to fully clarify this issue,” he insisted.

The new national commission will be available to “receive accusations, accompany [survivors] as much as possible, having a more articulate and comprehensive notion” of the issue, both current and past.

The lives lost during the pandemic

At Thursday’s closing Mass, Ornelas recalled in particular “the families that have lost loved ones, many of whom have not had the opportunity to mourn with consolation, longing and hope.”

He also thanked healthcare workers who assisted the sick, “in so many ways,” and those who “reached out and shared life, affection, bread, with those hit by the crisis.”

“Above all, we put all this in God’s hands in the celebration of the Eucharist. He also comes now to share our pains, our thirsts, our searches, he comes to meet our mistakes and our faults,” the bishop added.

In Portugal so far there have been 1.1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 18,222 deaths attributed to the disease.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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