May 19. 2024. 1:49

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Portugal’s Catholic Church under fire from president over response to abuse report

Portugal’s Catholic Church has clashed with the country’s president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, over its response to an independent report on sexual abuse within the institution.

The report, presented last month, found that more than 100 priests suspected of child sex abuse remained active in the Portuguese church. It also stated that members of the church abused at least 4,815 children between 1950 and 2022, a number it described as “the tip of the iceberg”.

The investigating commission, led by child psychiatrist Pedro Strecht, said it would present the list of suspects to legal authorities and that in the meantime they should be removed from any involvement with children.

In its initial response to the findings, on March 3rd, the church apologised for its role in any such cases and thanked those victims who had come forward to testify in the year-long investigation. However, it also cautioned against responding to accusations too stridently.

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“It will be very difficult to investigate because the list we have is just names, without any data,” said José Ornelas, bishop of Fátima-Leiria and head of the Portuguese episcopal conference. “To determine the viability of a process and of an eventual criminal case you need other elements.”

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Although Bishop Ornelas said the church had a “zero tolerance” policy regarding child abuse, he added: “I cannot withdraw someone from the ministry just because someone says that they abused someone.”

The church said it would provide counselling to victims but not compensation, which has been offered in other countries.

Mr Rebelo de Sousa, a conservative, said the church’s response “fell short by not taking responsibility”.

“How is it that the Catholic Church does not respond for acts carried out by someone who, in addition to invoking the office of faith, is a representative of a church that is certified … for its pastoral mission?” the president asked.

Mr Rebelo de Sousa himself came under fire last year for saying that 400 cases of alleged sexual abuse, which had been documented by the investigating commission at the time, did not seem to be “particularly high”.

Criticism of the church has come from elsewhere on the political spectrum. In Congress, Pedro Filipe Soares, of the Leftist Bloc, queried the apparent ruling out of payouts to victims.

“What about the Catholic Church in Ireland, in France and the United States?” he said, in reference to compensation paid in those countries. “Is the Portuguese church different?”

Bishop Ornelas appears to have shifted his stance in the wake of such comments. In an interview with Spain’s El País, he acknowledged that the church’s initial response had been poorly communicated. He also appeared to leave the door ajar to the negotiation of compensation, saying “it has to be addressed with the victims themselves”.