Portugal welcomes young Catholics following the release of a shock report on paedo-criminality within the Church. 4815 victims

Pope Francis is to meet a million young believers next week in Portugal, a deeply Catholic country that has recently become aware of the extent of the problem of paedo-criminality within the Church.

Two months after undergoing major abdominal surgery, Pope Francis is expected in Lisbon on 2 August 2023 for World Youth Day (WYD), a five-day visit attended by a million young Catholics from all over the world 

Proof that the subject has become an integral part of this Papal visit, scheduled for Wednesday to Sunday during World Youth Day (WYD), is the fact that the Pontiff is due to meet privately with victims of sexual assaults on minors by members of the clergy.

Last February, a report commissioned by the Portuguese Bishops' conference, but carried out by a commission of independent experts, established that at least 4,815 minors had been victims of sexual violence in a religious context since 1950.

These acts of violence had been covered up by the Church hierarchy in a "systemic" way, they concluded after gathering more than 500 testimonies in the space of a year, in a country where 80% of the population of 10 million defines itself as Catholic.

The Church hierarchy apologised to the victims and acknowledged that "the culture of the Church" needed to be changed. But the hierarchy appeared divided, with some bishops more reluctant than others to suspend priests against whom complaints had been made.

As proposed by the independent experts, the Bishops' Conference has set up another autonomous commission, called the "Vita Group", to support victims who have already been identified and to receive new complaints, as well as to accompany aggressors to prevent them from reoffending.

"I've been working in the field of sexual assaults on children and young people in Portugal for 25 years, and we've never talked so much," the body's coordinator, psychologist Rute Agulhas, told AFP.

"Taboos broken"

"The media coverage of the subject has the advantage of removing taboos", she continues, explaining that she has received more than twenty new complaints, some of which refer to recent situations.

According to a survey carried out by the Portuguese Catholic University's Centre for Studies and Opinion Polls (Cesop), 72% of those questioned welcomed the bishops' conference's initiative, but 68% felt that the Church's image had deteriorated.

Since the publication of the report in February, "very little progress has been made, and the little that has been done has been thanks to pressure from the media", laments Filipa Almeida, one of the three people behind Portugal's first association of victims of sexual assault by members of the clergy.

The 43-year-old woman from the Coimbra region (central Portugal), who testified before the commission that she was raped by a priest in a confessional when she was 17, said she was disappointed not to have been invited to take part in the meeting with the Pope.

"He is the highest representative of the Church in which we suffered these assaults, and it would be important to share our feelings with him and, above all, to tell him about our proposals", she told AFP in a telephone interview.

"This is a private meeting, and for this reason no prior information will be communicated, in particular to preserve the identity of the victims", said the Portuguese Bishops' Conference.

"First steps"

From Ireland to Germany to the United States, the proliferation of sex scandals in the Church has been one of the most painful challenges for Pope Francis.

After a disastrous trip to Chile in 2018 that led to spectacular exclusions and resignations, Francis apologised for clumsily defending a bishop. He then made repeated requests for forgiveness from the victims he regularly met.

Around a million young pilgrims are expected in Portugal for the WYD, and local organisers have announced that the event will be open to the public.