LISBON, Portugal (AP) — The lay head of a new Portuguese Catholic Church committee on child sex abuse urged victims Thursday to come forward but stressed his group's task is to study what has happened, not launch formal investigations.
The Independent Committee for the Study of Child Abuse in the Church is due to start work at the beginning of next year. The six-person committee includes psychiatrists, a former Supreme Court judge and a social worker.
Pedro Strecht, a psychiatrist who heads the new national committee, said he wanted any victims to overcome their fear and reluctance and get in touch, even if the abuse happened decades ago. He promised anonymity for anyone who does.
“We appeal to everyone who may have been a victim of these crimes to dare to speak up, to come forward finally and without fear about what happened to them,” Strecht said during a news conference, adding that the committee didn't plan to start criminal investigations.
Bishop José Ornelas, head of the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference, said he wanted the committee to work “without prejudice or cover-ups” to “illuminate these painful situations with the light of justice and truth.”
The committee, which will report to the Bishops’ Conference, complements 21 local groups across the country assessing child sex abuse cases and also are made up largely of lay people, including lawyers, psychologists and psychiatrists.
The local groups were set up following Pope Francis’s appeal in 2019 for the Roman Catholic Church to address abuse allegations.
Two years ago, Portuguese church officials said authorities had investigated only about a dozen allegations of sexual abuse involving Portuguese priests since 2001. More than half of those cases were dropped because church investigators decided there was not enough evidence to pursue them.
Ornelas, the bishop, declined to speculate on how many more cases might come to light.
“I don’t know what to expect. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need to do so much work,” he said.