LEBANON, Portugal (AP) – More than 4,800 people may have been victims of child sexual abuse in Portugal’s Catholic Church and 512 alleged victims have already come forward to speak out, a panel of experts said. which looked at historical abuse in the church on Monday.
Senior Portuguese church officials have previously claimed that only a handful of cases have occurred.
Senior clerks sat in the front row of the auditorium where panel members read out some of the graphic accounts of alleged abuse that made up their final report. There were vivid and moving descriptions.
The head of the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference, Bishop José Ornelas, said church authorities would study the panel’s 500-page report before giving an official response.
“We have seen and heard things that we cannot ignore,” he told reporters. “It’s a dramatic set of circumstances. It will not be easy to overcome.”
The Independent Committee for the Study of Child Abuse in the Catholic Church, established by the Portuguese bishops just over a year ago, looked at alleged cases from 1950 onwards. Portugal’s bishops are to discuss the report next month.
The panel regretted that it had taken so long for the Vatican to grant access to church archives. Approval only came in October, giving the panel three months to go through written evidence of abuse.
The statute of limitations has expired in most of the alleged cases. Only 25 allegations were forwarded to prosecutors, the panel said.
The report, which some criticized as overdue, came four years after Pope Francis gathered church leaders from around the world at the Vatican to address the crisis of sexual abuse in the church.
That meeting was held more than 30 years after the scandal first erupted in Ireland and Australia and 20 years after it hit the United States.
Bishops and other Catholic leaders in many parts of Europe at the time continued to deny that clergy sexual abuse existed or insisted on giving little weight to the problem.
Pedro Strecht, a psychiatrist who led the panel in Portugal, said he estimates the number of victims during the period to be at least 4,815. That extrapolation was made to other potential victims mentioned by those victims who came forward.
The panel is not releasing the names of the victims, the identities of the alleged abusers, or the locations where the alleged abuses occurred. However, a list of alleged abusers still active in the church is to be sent to bishops by the end of the month.
The final report includes a separate — and confidential — annex containing the names of church members reported to the committee which is being sent to the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference and the police.
The Portuguese church has not said whether it intends to pay compensation to any victims.
The six-person committee included psychiatrists, a former Supreme Court judge and a social worker.
The report said 77% of the abusers were priests, while other offenders were linked to church institutions. He added that 77% of victims did not report the abuse to church officials and only 4% went to the police. Most of the abuse took place when the victims were in their early teens.
He said 48% of those who came forward spoke about the abuse for the first time. Most of the alleged victims were male, although 47% were female, the report said.
He said there were places in Portugal, such as some seminaries and religious institutions, which were “real black spots” for abuse.
The panel recommended that the statute of limitations on such crimes be extended to at least 30 years from the current 23 years.