Portugal’s Catholic Church on Friday asked victims of child sexual abuse by the clergy for forgiveness, following the publication of an independent report that set out the extent of the offences.
The damning report on child sexual abuse last month reported that clergy had abused nearly 5,000 children since 1950.
The Portuguese inquiry, commissioned by the Church in the staunchly Catholic country, published its findings after hearing from more than 500 victims last year.
“It is with sorrow that we once again ask forgiveness from all the victims of sexual assaults within the Catholic Church in Portugal,” the bishops’ conference said in a statement after a meeting in Fatima, central Portugal.
The Church would make a “public gesture” to ask forgiveness in Fatima in April, the statement added. A memorial to the victims was also being planned.
The report said that for years, the hierarchy in the Portuguese Church had systematically covered up the abuse.
“We have to change the culture of the Church,” Jose Ornelas Carvalho, bishop of Leiria-Fatima and president of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference (CEP) said at a news conference.
The Church would offer support to victims of abuse who wanted it, he added, but said the question of compensation would be a matter for the courts.
The abuse scandal is just the latest in a series of such revelations engulfing the Catholic Church across the world.
Faced with a multitude of clergy sex abuse cases that have come to light worldwide and the accusations of cover-ups, Pope Francis promised in 2019 to root out paedophilia within the Church.
The Church has launched investigations in several other countries, including Australia, France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands.
In a statement broadcast on Twitter Thursday, the pope made it clear that asking for forgiveness, while necessary, would not be enough. “The Church must serve as a model to help solve the issue,” he said.
“The Church must offer safe spaces for victims to be heard, supported psychologically, and protected.”
The bishop’s conference agreed on Friday to set up a new body to put those ideas into action, following one of the recommendations of the independent report.
In an open letter published on Thursday, progressive elements in the Church called for it to implement the main recommendations.
Any members of the clergy accused of abuse who were still serving should be suspended, the letter said — and those bishops who had helped cover up the abuse should go.
The report’s authors have provided the Church hierarchy with a list of clerics accused of having carried out the abuse.
But Bishop Ornelas told reporters Friday: “We have only received a list of names, without describing the nature of the accusations.
“Each bishop will have to decide what measures to take in the light of civil and canonical law.”
Pope Francis is due to visit the Portuguese capital Lisbon in August, and the capital’s auxiliary bishop, Americo Aguiar, has said he may meet some of the victims of abuse.