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ROME – Just months ahead of an expected visit by Pope Francis for World Youth Day this summer, an independent commission investigating clerical sexual abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church announced that it estimates a total of almost 5,000 victims since 1950.
The report, published Monday, Feb. 13, found that at least 4,815 children had been abused by members of the Catholic Church in Portugal over the past 70 years, saying these numbers are just the “tip of the iceberg.”
In 58.5 percent of the cases included in the report, victims said they knew of other abuse that occurred against other people, which, despite problems of recollection, precision, and accuracy, allowed the commission to estimate that the 512 victims either knew of, or were in contact with, 4,300 others.
According to an executive summary of the report, the real numbers are likely much higher, as many victims have not yet reported their abuse and many complaints were dealt with informally, leaving no paper trail, prior to the implementation of specific reporting guidelines in 2010.
Priests made up roughly 77 percent of abusers, and most of the victims were men, the report said, saying the abuse happened in a variety of locations, from seminaries, to churches, to the confessional, and even religious schools.
The Portuguese Independent Commission (CI) that conducted the inquiry was hired by the Portuguese bishops and began its work in January 2022, after a similar report was published in France finding that around 3,000 Catholic priests and religious had abused over 200,000 children in the country.
Abuse allegations in the Portuguese report included people from various backgrounds and every region of the country, including Portuguese nationals living abroad in countries within Africa, Europe, and the Americas.
At a presentation of the report Monday, commission head and child psychiatrist Pedro Strecht said, “[We want] to pay a sincere tribute to those who were abuse victims during their childhood and dared to give a voice to silence…They are much more than a statistic.”
According to the executive summary, the commission began its work by posting an online survey on the “Giving Silence a Voice” website, where victims could complete it anonymously.
The commission based its report on interviews with some 512 victims who came forward through the survey, as well as an analysis of numerous church archives and interviews with bishops and clergy, including 19 bishops and 13 superiors general of religious communities.
Of the testimonies heard by the commission, 25 were sent to the public prosecutors’ office for investigation, as the others were committed over 20 years ago and thus legal proceedings could no longer be initiated.
In the report, the commission said that in addition to the interviews conducted, researchers at the Historical Research Group (GIH) were given access to archives of Portuguese dioceses and religious institutes with the purpose of analyzing documents relevant to sexual abuse against minors between 1950-2022.
According to the data collected, most of the victims who came forward were male, and the majority of children were abused between the ages of 10-14, with the average age being just 11 years old.
The largest number of cases, 58 percent, took place between the 1960s and 1990, with just 21 percent of cases happening since 1991.
Abuse included anything from touching, masturbation, oral and anal sex, as well as sexual penetration, verbal innuendo and, in some instances, child pornography. Almost all of the abusers were male, and most of them were priests. In half of the instances, the abuser was already known to the victim, and at times had also had a rapport with their family.
Most victims identified came forward about their abuse when they were already adults, confiding first in family.
The report stated that in almost 69 percent of cases, “noting was done to remove the abuser” at the time the abuse occurred, mostly because the majority of victims never made a complaint to church authorities or organizations. Just four percent of victims took their cases to court.
Most victims, the report said, were told that their abuse had a ‘divine purpose’ and were asked to keep it quiet, and while most did not report having any physical consequence as a result of their abuse, many reported it having an emotional and psychological impact that remains to this day.
The report said that news reports and testimonies provided revealed that seven apparent victims of clerical sexual abuse had committed suicide.
Of those abused, most still consider themselves religious and remain Catholic, although the majority no longer practice within a church setting.
According to the report, instances of suspected abuse found in church archives indicated that some allegations led to preliminary investigations and criminal proceedings, and that punishment for alleged abuse included anything from spiritual retreats, to transfers, surveillance by authorities, as well as a handful who were defrocked.
The commission said that after 2010, there was a “exponential growth” in the number of cases documented, including decades-old allegations, which they said was a direct result of the implementation of national Guidelines for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons, which require dioceses and religious institutes to follow a standard reporting procedure when allegations are made.
Prior to 2010, there was “very significant room for autonomy” in how abuse allegations were handled, the report said, saying church archives in some cases referenced abuse that was known to diocesan authorities, but for which there was no paper trail.
From 2010 onwards, “uniform standard procedures were adopted for dealing with complaints: preliminary investigation, notifying the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, opening of criminal administrative proceedings,” the report said, but cautioned that not even these procedures “did away with the diversity of ways of implementing the Holy See’s guidelines.”
There is also “a strong degree of probability that files may have been purged without following the rules laid down by Canon Law,” the report said, saying this is a conviction that was shared by many of the clergymen interviewed as part of the inquiry.
In terms of abuse how the hierarchy handled allegations, the report found that between the 1950s-70s, abuse was largely covered up, as church authorities’ main interest was “to protect the Church’s good name” publicly, opting instead for quiet payment and compensation agreements.
While attention to the victims’ suffering was generally not a priority for church officials or prevention measures when abuse was reported, “in recent years there seems to have been a turnaround,” the report said.
The report closed with a series of recommendations for both the Catholic Church in Portugal and civil society.
Among other things, the commission recommended that the church create a new interdisciplinary commission composed of both external and internal members to continue monitoring and studying the problem, and they urged recognition of the existence and extent of the problem of abuse as well as a commitment to prevention.
The commission asked that the church be serious in observing the concept of “zero tolerance,” urging clarity about its moral duty in reporting alleged abuse to civil authorities and collaborating in investigations.
Report authors also asked the church to apologize for past abuse and to provide external training and supervision of church representatives, and they recommended that the church cease holding functions in closed, individual physical spaces and that further preventive measures, such as a “best practices” manual, be compiled.
The commission also asked that support for victims and their families be provided by the church, and asked that ongoing psychological help be offered for past, present and even future victims in coordination with the National Health Service (SNS).
In terms of civil society, the report recommended that a national study be carried out on child sexual abuse and that there be an “unequivocal” recognition of the rights of the child, and that children and families be empowered at the school level.
The commission also asked that the statute of limitations be adjusted by raising the “upper age limit of the child victim,” and urged speed in the judicial assessment and response to allegations. They also suggested strengthening the role of media in investigating the issue and improving emotional literacy in the development of children and youth, especially when it comes to topics such as love and sex.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen