LISBON, Portugal — The president of the Portuguese bishops’ conference begged forgiveness from victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, as a church-appointed independent commission predicted many more abuse cases would come to light.
“These attacks are particularly serious; in addition to direct physical harm, they affect the fundamental system of affection, trust and values that sustains personal, relational and spiritual development,” said Bishop José Ornelas Carvalho of Leiria-Fatima.
“I hope the liberating courage of victims can motivate others in a similar situation, offering a key contribution to the creation of a new culture and a dignified, fair and welcoming future,” he said.
The bishop, whose speech was carried May 10 by Portugal’s Ecclesia news agency, addressed a Lisbon colloquium co-sponsored by the Independent Commission for Studying Sexual Abuse of Children in the Church, set up last November by the bishops’ conference.
Ornelas said he was grateful to those who had shown courage in “daring to denounce their pain and those who caused it,” and he asked forgiveness for past “lack of attention” by the church.
The commission’s coordinator, Pedro Strecht, said staffers had so far collected 326 personal testimonies and submitted 16 cases to prosecutors.
However, he added that “fear and shame” were still widespread, and he said most victims were certain current reported cases were just “the tip of an iceberg.”
“Members of the Portuguese church concealed various situations, and we must hope there’ll be no concealment of the concealment as we study diocesan archives,” Strecht told the colloquium.
“This study was entrusted to us, and the main interest in carrying it out and obtaining results lies with the church itself. … A large majority of people responding to the survey still consider themselves Catholic, as they were at the time of the abuse.”
Portugal’s Catholic bishops issued new guidelines on preventing abuse in January 2021 and announced the independent commission Nov. 11.
In an April 28 statement, the bishops’ conference said efforts were underway to coordinate preexisting diocesan committees with common “procedures, guidelines and clarifications.”
It added that the Independent Commission, which includes lawyers, psychologists, therapists and social workers, as well as a team of historians and archivists, was fully autonomous and would seek an “unequivocal and effective clarification of the truth” when it reported in late 2022.
An expert from the Pontifical Commission for Protection of Minors said the “systemic aspect” of abuse had been understood “only in the last four or five years” by the Catholic Church and still required a “cultural change” to facilitate “facing and accepting responsibility.”
“It is surprising and disturbing that the same mechanisms — not similar, but the same — of defending the institution at the expense of awareness of people’s suffering have been in place in all countries I’ve visited,” Jesuit Father Hans Zollner told the colloquium May 10. “What is important is that these commissions can do their work independently, with no interference of any kind and a commitment to find the facts.”
The Catholic Ecclesia agency republished advice on contacting the Independent Commission via telephone, email, letters and online surveys during the Lisbon colloquium, which was also addressed by religious order leaders and Catholic scholars.