More than 4,000 children abused by Portuguese priests

Report on 72 years of sexual deviance shows 100 suspect priests are ‘still working’

The (almost) full horror of the independent commission’s report into child sex abuse within the Portuguese Catholic Church was laid bare in the press on Monday, accompanied by profuse apologies from the institution’s hierarchy – which has pledged ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual abuse from here forwards.

International media organisations seized on the moment to splash the findings across the world: a minimum of 4,815 children and teens have been sexually abused by priests and others working in the Church in Portugal since 1950.

The majority of victims have been young boys, between the ages of 11 – 14; the majority of abusers have been priests; the average age of victims today is 52.

“There are accounts of abuse in sacristies, religious institutions, confessionals and holiday camps. 

“Abuses took place in all forms: penetration, exhibitionism, manipulation, the sending of mobile phone messages, among others.”

The more one goes back in time, the more the phenomenon assumed “truly endemic proportions”, coordinator of the commission Pedro Strecht told Monday’s press conference. 

Sex abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church affected children of both sexes, almost all practicing Catholics  (…) and encompassing all points of the country and several social groups and realities”.

To abusers one has to add ‘concealers’ – the hierarchy that covered up complaints: “namely some bishops”. 

“There is a sector in the Catholic Church that wants to keep secrets (about these abuses)”, Pedro Strecht reiterated (it is a comment the respected child psychologist has made in the past, as the commission has given sporadic updates since it began its task in January 2022).

But as the inquiry’s findings and recommendations are ‘analysed’ by an extraordinary plenary session of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference on March 3, there is still one pressing question: what will happen to today’s abusers? The priests against whom allegations have been made and who still preside over parishes?

This is the first major hurdle in the Church’s desire for a ‘better Church’ – because the report’s ‘annex of names’ is not being made public. It is being forwarded to the Church, for the Church to handle accordingly.

Pedro Strecht has made his commission’s position clear: “For abusers still working there can be no spiritual retreats, no transitory retreats. We ask other things – obviously they must be removed”.

Psychiatrist Daniel Sampaio – brother of former president of the republic Jorge Sampaio – and a member of the commission believes “the most important treatment of abusers is swift and effective justice (…)  Treatment can be through psychopharmaceuticals, but intensive psychotherapy is needed (…)”

And this is where the way forwards already becomes ‘complicated’: “What the Pope says – and this is also very clear to us – abusers of minors cannot have positions within the ministry (…) That is very clear. As long as it is proven that the person is an abuser, he has no place,” Bishop Ornelas, president of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference, told the Church’s press conference on Monday.

‘As long as it is proven’ – this is the unknown quantity: how to ‘prove’ if there is no ‘evidence’; if the victim remains desperate for anonymity; if there are no witnesses; if the alleged abuser denies the abuse ever happened?

Lusa news agency admits: “The CEP president was not clear about what will happen to clerics or other members of the church who are suspected of abuse, and whose names may appear on the list that the commission has said it will pass on”. 

He refuses any “witch-hunt” process, says the State news agency – suggesting alleged abusers will not be ‘suspended pending internal inquiries’.

Bishop Ornelas also explained that investigations into allegations in the Portuguese church will require investigations by the relevant bishop of the diocese, who “in case of plausibility” of the accusations will refer the process to the Vatican, which would then decide.

“We don’t have a list yet, but we will receive it and deal with it properly,” he said.

The bishop also stressed that, as for public prosecutors, the principle underlying the handling of a case in the Church is that confidentiality is maintained “as a basis, so that things are not handled in the street, but are handled with dignity for all.”

As for the conclusion of the process, once it reaches the Vatican, he said that “it takes time, but it’s not that long, either.”

In other words, there is no certainty that alleged abusers will be removed from their posts – and it will take time.

As for the rest, the commission’s report is to be ‘analysed’ by the Church hierarchy – at which point any number of pledges/ decisions may be made.

The commission has left a series of recommendations over how to move forwards from this desperate day of reckoning, and none include any kind of compensation for victims (as some sectors of society have suggested should happen).

The commission’s full report can be read in English on

Meantime, the bottom line of the commission’s work is that 500 reports of sexual abuse were ‘validated’, but due to legal limits on prosecutions, only 25 ‘made it’ to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, of which a number have already been archived.

[email protected]

(The above text first appeared in our paper edition of February 15)