By Catarina Demony
LISBON (Reuters) – A commission investigating child sexual abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church said on Tuesday the nearly 300 testimonies of alleged victims it has collected so far were “just the tip of the iceberg”.
“There have been multiple cases of sexual abuse of children and teenagers in the past,” said the head of the commission, child psychiatrist Pedro Strecht, explaining that more than half of the 290 testimonies indicate “many more victims”.
The abuse allegations have come from people born between 1933 and 2009, from various backgrounds, from every region of the country and also from Portuguese nationals living in other European nations, the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Most of the alleged victims are men, and were sexually abused as early as when they were 2-years-old.
The commission started its work in January after a report by a commission in France revealed last year around 3,000 priests and religious officials sexually abused more than 200,000 children over the past 70 years.
The commission, which has its own website and phone line, relies on alleged victims to come forward, but also on access to historic files from dioceses. They hope to present the report by the end of this year.
A team of experts is working with the dioceses to gain access to the files.
Sociologist Ana Nunes de Almeida said the commission requested interviews with Portugal’s 21 bishops but only 12 have agreed to speak so far.
“The number (of victims) doesn’t stop here… we are just at the tip of the iceberg,” Almeida said.
From the 290 testimonies, 16 were sent to the public prosecutors’ office for investigation as all others were committed over 20 years ago and legal proceedings can no longer be initiated.
But Strecht said the commission has already “identified signs” of cover up cases of sexual abuse including by bishops who remain active in church roles.
He said alleged victims were abused in various contexts, including in Catholic schools, catechism classes and during confession.
(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Angus MacSwan)