Left to right: Bishop Virgílio Antunes, Portuguese Episcopal Conference vice president; Bishop José Ornelas, conference president; and Father Manuel Barbosa, conference spokesman, during a press conference on March 3, 2023, which was held to discuss steps being taken to halt sexual abuse within the country’s Catholic Church. / Courtesy of 7 Margens

Fatima, Portugal, Mar 3, 2023 / 18:10 pm (CNA).

The bishops of Portugal on Friday began taking concrete steps to respond to a damning investigative report last month that estimated well over 4,000 children have been victims of sexual abuse within the country’s Catholic Church since the 1950s.

Meeting in a plenary assembly in Fátima, the Portuguese Episcopal Conference announced the creation of all-lay diocesan commissions and a memorial to victims that will be unveiled during World Youth Day, taking place in Lisbon Aug. 1–6, among other measures.

“We reiterate our deep gratitude to all the victims who have given their testimony over the last year. Without you, it would not have been possible to reach today. Thank you,” said Father Manuel Barbosa, a spokesman for the bishops’ conference.

“We also want to leave a word of courage to all the victims who still harbor the pain in the depths of their hearts,” he added, announcing that a “specific group” will be created, which will follow the model of the independent commission. In addition, the diocesan commissions that had already been created will now be “made up only of competent laypeople in the most diverse areas of activity, with the possibility of having an ecclesiastical assistant,” the bishops decided.

Another initiative announced was the creation of a memorial for victims of abuse. After World Youth Day, the memorial will be moved to a location outside the conference’s headquarters.

Barbosa also reiterated the request for forgiveness directed at “all victims of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Portugal,” adding that “this request will be made public in April,” in Fátima, during the bishops’ next assembly.

The bishops pledged to provide “spiritual, psychological, and psychiatric monitoring” to all victims and that it will have “zero tolerance towards all abusers and towards those who, in some way, concealed the abuses practiced within the Catholic Church.”

More investigation needed

Many of the priests and other alleged perpetrators of abuse identified in the independent commission’s final report, issued Feb. 13, have long since died.

But on Friday, the commission, which was authorized by the bishops’ conference, provided the bishops with the names of still-active priests who have been accused. Those allegations still must be investigated, the bishops stressed.

“I cannot remove someone from the ministry just because someone accused him,” explained Bishop José Ornelas, president of the conference.

“We only have names, it is very difficult. To move forward, it is clear that we need to have data, and this list that we receive only has names,” he said, adding that “if there are other documents that reach us to, first, identify who the possible abuser is and what he did wrong, we will take appropriate action.”

The bishop of Leiria-Fátima also emphasized that the Portuguese Church is not “at the end of a process” but rather “moving from the page of the report to concrete action.”

On Thursday, the Portuguese Church signed a protocol with the Portuguese Association for Victim Support outlining steps to ensure “zero tolerance” for abuse during World Youth Day.

The protocol aims to provide employees and volunteers of the event with special training in the prevention of victim support so that they can act in the face of possible occurrences during the event in Lisbon and the dioceses hosting participants.

This type of partnership, unprecedented in the history of World Youth Day, implements “the best possible practices” to prevent abuse and violence and ensure that “victims are never forgotten,” said Bishop Américo Aguiar, auxiliary bishop of Lisbon and president of the WYD Lisbon 2023 Foundation.

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