Almost 300 victims have come forward against Church officials, and investigators say that this number is just “the tip of the iceberg.”
A commission of experts investigating child sexual abuse allegations against the Portuguese Catholic Church has received 290 witness statements from alleged victims in the first three months since the probe started. The testimonies could be "just the tip of the iceberg," the commission said.
"There have been multiple cases of sexual abuse of children and teenagers in the past," said Pedro Strecht, a psychiatrist who heads the Independent Commission for the Study of Child Abuse in the Church, adding that more than half of the 290 testimonies suggest there could be "many more victims."
The six-person commission, which includes psychiatrists, a former Supreme Court judge and a social worker, began the investigation by promising anonymity to anyone who came forward.
The commission said it has reason to believe that church officials, including bishops whose names have not been disclosed, tried to cover up the long years of abuse.
“It was often a case of moving the abuser from place to place as if at that time the place was viewed as the key factor, not the actual person,” Strecht said.
The victims of sexual abuse were born between 1933 and 2009 and came from various backgrounds and countries, including Portugal.
The Portuguese commission, which has its own website and phone line, relies on alleged victims to come forward to build the case against Church officials. But it also has access to historical Church records. The commission hopes to finalise the report by the end of this year.
The commission said it had approached all of Portugal’s 21 bishops for interviews to discuss its work, but only 12 have agreed to a meeting.
"The number [of victims] doesn't stop here... we are just at the tip of the iceberg," said Ana Nunes Almeida, a Lisbon University sociologist and member of the commission.
She said there was a wide variety of alleged abuse, ranging from indecent exposure to penetration.
Out of the 290 testimonies, only 16 could be forwarded to the public prosecutor's office for investigation. All the other alleged abusive crimes were committed more than 20 years ago, which means legal proceedings can no longer be initiated against the culprits.
An 88-year-old is among those who have come before the commission.