Commission for the Study of Child Abuse in the Church in Portugal releases early findings
An inquiry in yet another country is revealing shocking details about the abuse and depravity that children were subjected to at a place that was supposed to educate, love, and care for them. As horrifying as these preliminary details are, we are not surprised and only expect more victims and cases to be brought forward.
According to the commission of experts investigating child sexual abuse allegations against the Portuguese Catholic Church, 290 witness statements from victims have emerged in the first three months since the probe started. The testimonies could be "just the tip of the iceberg," according to the commission.
Portugal is one of the "most Catholic" countries in the world; 9 out of 10 residents are of the Catholic faith and the Church employs twenty-one bishops who have enormous influence over many national issues that affect the lives of all Portuguese people. It is not hard to imagine that this influence extends to police departments and policymakers, so it is conceivable that ugly truths about the cover-up of abuse will be forthcoming. We have seen this very pattern in every other country in which independent inquiries have been launched regarding clergy abuse.
This effort to understand abuse in Portugal is a monumental step because, at least on its surface, the commission reviewing the issues and providing a hotline tip line is independent. That independence is the only way victims can feel safe that their reports are being heard and taken seriously. That independence is also the only way Portuguese society can begin to design national systems that make children safe from clerical abuse.
Central to each of these inquiries is an unrestrained clergy and a society that trusted them to "do the right thing." But that sad fact is that, around the globe, Catholic priests and bishops have instead consistently done the wrong thing. Despite the rhetoric of three popes, countless cardinals, and hundreds of bishops, we see that the sexual abuse of children and adults within Church institutions continues into the present day.
In three months, an average of 3 calls per day have been lodged with the commission in Portugal, according to media reports. That is consistent with what was seen in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which has fielded 2,200 calls and tips since August 2018. The PA grand jury report was a watershed report in America because it confirmed that a bishop’s playbook was used to hide the abuse from law enforcement, shuffle abusers to other unsuspecting Catholic communities, and in general thwart justice and accountability. We hope that the work of the Portuguese commission will prevent Portugal's bishops from any more of the same.
A country the size of Portugal has about 2800 priests and thousands of places a priest who abuses children can work or be hidden. Given our knowledge of US and French statistics around the abuse crisis in those countries, we would expect up to 2,000 accused clerics and over 100,000 victims in Portugal. Because each victim comes from a family, and the entire family suffers when even one of its children is abused, Catholic priest abuse in Portugal will touch a million or more Portuguese. This is a systemic disaster that has already occurred, and now the work is to help living survivors heal and to prevent any further abuse from occurring.
Just two years ago, Portuguese Church officials said authorities had investigated only about a dozen allegations of sexual abuse involving Portuguese priests since 2001. More than half of those cases were dropped because Church investigators decided there was not enough evidence to pursue them.
While we hope that this initial report will shine a light through the dark clouds of sexual abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church, we also hope that it encourages others to step forward with any information they may have regarding abuse by those in positions of power within the Catholic Church.
(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for more than 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)