Pope Francis has met with survivors of clergy sexual abuse in Portugal and blasted members of the country’s Catholic hierarchy for their response to the scandal.
Francis dove head-on into the crisis that has rocked the Portuguese church on the first day of a five-day visit to Lisbon for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day festival.
His trip comes at a delicate moment for the Portuguese church; a panel of experts hired by Portugal’s bishops reported in February that priests and other church personnel may have abused at least 4,815 boys and girls since 1950.
The Vatican said Francis met with 13 abuse victims for more than an hour at the Vatican Embassy and characterised the pope’s role in the meeting as one of “intense listening”.
The victims were accompanied by church personnel in charge of child protection programmes.
The encounter, which had been expected, was aimed at trying to help the Portuguese hierarchy and faithful come to terms with the church’s own legacy of abuse and cover-up after many other European countries have gone through similar reckonings.
The response by Portugal’s bishops to the expert report’s findings, however, in some ways added to the problem.
Prior to the report, Portuguese church officials had insisted there were only a handful of child sex abuse cases. After the document’s release, the bishops initially refused to remove named abusers from ministry and said they would only compensate victims if courts ordered them to.
The meeting with victims came after Francis presided over a vigil service for Portuguese clergy and nuns at the capital’s Jeronimos Monastery, where in February hundreds of people had gathered after the report was released to pray for victims.
Speaking in his native Spanish, Francis acknowledged many clergy and nuns in countries with once-thriving Catholic parishes feel weary about their vocations because the faithful are increasingly detached from their faith.
“It is often accentuated by the disappointment and anger with which some people view the church, at times due to our poor witness and the scandals that have marred her face and call us to a humble and ongoing purification, starting with the anguished cry of the victims, who must always be accepted and listened to,” he said.
Francis demanded that bishops respond better to victims by accepting them and listening to them.
Bishop Jose Ornelas, the head of the Portuguese bishops’ conference, promised in a speech before Francis spoke to devote “our special attention to the protection of the welfare of children and the undertaking to protect them from all kinds of abuse”.
The Portuguese Catholic Church also promised in March to build a memorial to victims that would be unveiled during World Youth Day, but organisers scrapped the plan a few weeks ago.
In its place, victims’ advocates launched a campaign called “This is our memorial”. Hours before the pope arrived, they put up a billboard in central Lisbon reading “4,800+ Children Abused by the Catholic Church in Portugal”.
They said it was paid for through a crowdfunding campaign that was so successful the organisers can put up more billboards around the city, though it was not clear if Francis would see any during his visit.