Portugal’s Catholic bishops have vowed to stick to a path of reform in the matter of clerical sexual abuse, two months after an independent commission published a 400-page report that detailed incidences of child abuse and estimated a minimum of 5000 cases over the past 70 years.
During the bishops’ plenary meeting in Fátima, Bishop José Ornelas presided over a special Mass for abuse victims, saying, “There can be no condoning situations or attitudes that endanger the lives of innocent people. The ‘zero tolerance’ that Pope Francis speaks of expresses this fundamental commitment to life and justice, especially for those who were cruelly deprived of them. The Church cannot turn back from this path.”
During a press conference later that afternoon, the bishops explained that a new organisation is being set up to accompany abuse victims who turn to the Church for help. This commission, staffed by other mental health experts, will be headed by psychologist Rute Agulhas who has experience working with Lisbon’s Commission for the Protection of Minors. An expert on canon law will serve as an advisor.
Bishop Ornelas explained that 30 people are already receiving psychological support for abuse-related issues, which is being paid for by the Church. He asked victims to have trust in the process.
At the end of their three-day meeting the bishops announced that they had re-elected Bishop Ornelas to a second three-year term as head of the conference. Ornelas, who used to be a Dehonian missionary, came under heavy criticism both within and without the Church after he badly fumbled a press conference about abuse at the beginning of March, after a meeting with members of the independent commission, who handed each bishop a list with alleged abusers from their respective dioceses. Critics accused him of lacking empathy and dodging issues related to reparations or suspension of accused priests.
He since apologised during an interview with a Portuguese newspaper, saying that he had not been able to get his message across and insisting that the Church in Portugal wants to become a welcoming and safe space for all vulnerable people.