A study in Portugal reveals that a church abused nearly 5,000 children
A study in Portugal reveals that a church abused nearly 5,000 children

Lisbon: More than 4,800 people may have been victims of child sex abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church and 512 alleged victims have already come forward with their stories, an expert panel probing historical abuse in the church said Monday.

Senior church officials in Portugal had earlier said that only a small number of cases had been reported. In the auditorium, the senior clergy sat in the front row as panel members read some of the horrific allegations of abuse that were included in their final reports. The details were shocking and vivid.

Just a year earlier, Portuguese bishops established the Independent Committee for the Study of Child Abuse in the Catholic Church, which investigated alleged cases from the 1950s. The Portuguese bishops will discuss the report in an emergency meeting on 3 March.

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For most of the alleged cases, the statute of limitations has passed. According to the panel, only 25 charges were sent to prosecutors.

The report, which some have criticized as being long overdue, was released four years after Pope Francis convened world church leaders at the Vatican to discuss the sexual abuse crisis in the church.

The meeting was held more than 30 years after the scandal first came to light in Ireland and Australia, as well as 20 years after it first came to light in the United States.

Bishops and other Catholic leaders in many areas of Europe at the time insisted on either denying or downplaying the issue of sexual abuse by clergy.

Bishop José Ornelas, president of the Portuguese bishops' conference, begged for forgiveness from the victims and expressed regret at the church's failure to recognize the seriousness of the issue.

In a statement he read later Monday, Ornelas called child sex abuse a "heinous crime" and said, "It is an open wound that brings us pain and shame."

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The panel bemoaned the length of time it took for the Vatican to allow access to church records. The panel was given only three months to review the written abuse evidence as permission did not come until October.

The panel's leader in Portugal, Pedro Stretch, a psychiatrist, said the group believed there were at least 4,815 victims in total during the time period under investigation. The extrapolation was based on possible additional victims that the victims mentioned coming forward.

The panel is not disclosing the names of the victims, the names of the alleged abusers or the locations where the alleged abuse took place. But by the end of the month, he must send a list of alleged abusers who are still in the church.

A separate, confidential annexure containing the names of all church members reported to the committee is included in the final report and is also sent to the police and the Portuguese Episcopal Conference.

It has not been made clear whether the Portuguese church plans to compensate any of the victims. The six members of the committee included a psychiatrist, a former Supreme Court judge and a social worker.

According to the report, 77 percent of the abusers were priests and other perpetrators were affiliated with church organizations. It was also noted that only 4% of victims went to the police, and 77% of victims did not report the abuse to church officials. Early adolescence was when victims experienced most of the abuse.

According to the report, 48 percent of those who came forward discussed the abuse for the first time. 47 percent of the alleged victims were women, but men made up the majority, according to the report.

It claimed that there were "real blackspots" for abuse in Portugal, including some madrassas and religious organizations. The report states that information about child sexual abuse found in ecclesiastical records should be considered "the tip of the iceberg".

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Even when discussing abuse, these records often fail to specifically mention it, and many incidents are handled informally, according to the panel. The panel recommended increasing the current 23-year limits for such offenses to at least 30 years.

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