Last year, in October 2022, there came a shocker when a psychiatrist, Pedro Strecht who leads Portugal’s independent committee for conducting an extensive study into the matter of child abuse by the Catholic Church revealed that the panel being led by him has collected a long list of 424 children who are the victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by the Catholic Church. However, the church officials occupying senior positions claimed that there were only some sporadic sexual abuse cases and that the abuse incidents are not as widespread as they are being reflected.
Thereafter Strecht, in a news conference which took place in Lisbon conveyed that as per the information presently available, both Catholic Church members and priests have perpetrated sexual abuses since 1950. Further, he said that though both boys and girls were the victims of sexual abuse, the proportion of boys was higher. He went on to give details that certain alleged abusers were repeatedly named by the victims and as per the account of the victims they were made to go through forceful penetration and indecent exposure. Strecht’s panel refrained from publishing the names of alleged abusers and victims along with the details of places where the offences are alleged to have been committed. But the panel in October 2022 made it clear that once a final report is made, it would send it to the police and Portuguese Bishops Conference and such a report shall be inclusive of the church members’ names alleged to have committed sexual abuses.
Now, on 13th February 2023, it was revealed by the committee that over 4,800 children are estimated to have been the victims of heinous sex abuse crimes committed by the Portuguese Catholic Church. From amongst these 4,800 children, 512 victims are ready to share their stories. Unfortunately, the period of limitation for filing cases has expired for most of the imputations and only 25 sexual allegations are such which have been delivered to the prosecutors as they fall within the bar imposed by the limitation law.
FINDINGS OF THE REPORT
The report on incidents of sexual offences committed by the Portuguese Catholic Church released on 13th February 2023 has been prepared by a committee of six, comprising a psychiatrist, a social worker along with a former Supreme Court Judge. The report mentions that 77% of the total abusers were priests and the rest 23% though not priests were linked to the church in one way or the other. The reporting percentage to the police was drastically low with only 4% of the victims have reported the crime to the police. The victims were exploited in their early adolescence age. The report further says that 47% of victims were female while the rest were male. The committee even conducted an investigation regarding the premises wherein such crimes were committed and wrote in its report that religious institutions in Portugal were the places which witnessed such crimes.
ROLE OF POPE FRANCIS AND BISHOP JOSE ORNELAS IN ACKNOWLEDGING THE SIN
Four years back from now, Pope Francis, from all around the world gathered church leaders at the Vatican, so as to concretely address the sexual abuse allegations being made against church officials. He called for such a meeting in light of rampant sexual abuse allegations against the clergymen who were coming from different parts of the world be it Australia, Ireland, or the United States. The meeting was conducted despite the blatant denial by senior members of the church of any instance of sexual violence. The next important role is of the Portuguese Bishops Conference’s head- Bishop Jose Ornelas who on 13th February 2023 with remorse not only asked for forgiveness from the victims of sexual abuse but also admitted to having failed to comprehend and understand the extent of the problem marring the church. It takes much courage to admit wrongdoing and the courage was clearly reflected in the act of Bishop Jose Ornelas when he read out an official statement of apology. In his statement, he made no attempt to sugarcoat his words or defend the alleged church officials, rather in vivid words called the sex abuse incidents an open wound which not only is agony but an embarrassment as well.
SUGGESTIONS BY THE COMMITTEE
The committee has suggested considering ecclesiastical records containing information about child sex abuse as only a minor part of a much larger and complex situation which is yet to be dealt. The committee reasoned its suggestion on the contention that church records many times do not directly give reference to the incident of abuse and rather deal with such incidents informally. The committee has opined that the time period stipulated for commencing prosecution for such sexual abuse cases under the limitation law should be raised to 30 years from the present 23 years.