A final report of the Independent Commission for the Study of Sexual Abuse of Children in the Catholic Church in Portugal revealed more than 4,800 children had been victims of clergy sexual abuse in the country from 1950 to 2022.
Responding to the report, the president of the Portuguese bishops' conference, Bishop José Ornelas Carvalho of Leiria-Fatima, apologized to the victims and thanked the church-sponsored commission for highlighting the abuse by Catholic clergy. He also pledged that surviving perpetrators would be removed from office.
"Zero tolerance toward abuse has to be a reality throughout the church -- we will not tolerate abuses or abusers," Bishop Ornelas said. "This is an open wound that hurts and shames us, and we ask forgiveness from all the victims -- those who courageously gave testimony, silent for so many years, and those still living with pain in the depths of their hearts."
The report was presented Feb. 13 at Lisbon's Catholic University.
In a statement, Bishop Ornelas said the report revealed a "harsh and tragic reality" of "perversity" among "clerics and other pastoral agents," who would have to "reckon" with "the resulting civil, criminal and moral responsibilities," while sincerely repenting and seeking "a radical change in their lives with the help of competent people."
"This study suggests a number much higher than the Catholic church was able to calculate. The church apologizes for not having known how to create effective forms of listening and internal scrutiny," Bishop Ornelas said. "We are aware nothing can repair the suffering and humiliation caused to victims and their families, but we are available to welcome and accompany them in overcoming the wounds caused to them and recovering their dignity and future."
Pedro Strecht, the commission's coordinator and president, presented the report, sharing that 512 testimonies of abuse had been validated out of 564 received between January and October of 2022. He added that Portugal's Catholic bishops had respected the commission's "impartiality and independence," and supported its work throughout.
He added that it was not possible to quantify the total number of crimes, since some children had suffered multiple abuses, but said the data pointed to "very minimum total" of 4,815 victims since 1950.
Another commission member, Álvaro Laborinho Lucio, said only 25 pedophilia cases had so far been referred to prosecutors, since many lay outside Portugal's statute of limitations. But he added that a list of still-living abusers would be submitted to judicial authorities and the Catholic church by the end of February.
According to the report, 77% of the abusers were priests, and other perpetrators were linked to church institutions. Also, 77% the victims did not report their abuse to church officials.
The 500-page report called for a new institution to continue monitoring abuse in the church, as well as for improved "training protocols" at Catholic seminaries.
However, it also warned that past church responses had been "characterized by denial," and said no action had been taken to remove accused clergy in two-thirds of reported cases, leaving victims "in a situation of helplessness."
"Lack of evaluation of children' rights and the closing of outside eyes were factors helping the perpetuation of abuses and victim silencing," the report said. "Priority was given to defending the institutional reputation of the church itself to the detriment of empathy with the voice, suffering and credibility of victims."
Portugal's bishops announced the Independent Commission -- which drew on the expertise of lawyers, psychologists and social workers, as well as historians and archivists -- at the Marian shrine of Fatima in November 2021, just a month after a church-commissioned report in France estimated widespread child abuse by clergy and church workers since the 1950s.
Besides France, independent commissions have been asked to study clerical abuse in Germany and Spain, and are being considered in other countries, including Poland, where a state commission on pedophilia also has reported on abuse within the Catholic church.
In his statement, Bishop Ornelas said the Portuguese bishops' conference would analyze the report and announce "concrete measures" at a plenary on March 3 to ensure "effective and adequate mechanisms" in resolving abuse cases and ensuring greater prevention.
He added that the bishops would remove any clergy named on the commission's list from offices in the church in compliance with civil regulations and Canon Law, while also ensuring protection of minors became a theme at the church's World Youth Day, which is to be attended by Pope Francis in Lisbon in August.
"The reality of abuses cannot let us forget the immense good, so often silent, of priests, religious and lay people involved in so many situations, to whom we want to offer a word of comfort and courage," Bishop Ornelas said. "This is not a finished process -- and our diocesan commissions will now play a leading role with regard to prevention, training and psychological help."
Receiving Strecht, a former attorney general, and other members Feb. 13, Portuguese president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa thanked the commission for its "remarkable work" in "raising awareness of a serious reality which existed and still exists," and in recognizing "the unbearable pain of victims."