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Portuguese Church struggles to adopt concrete measures to tackle child sexual abuse

by Reuters Journalist

Portugal's Catholic Church announced a handful of steps on Friday to tackle child sexual abuse within the Church - but it said suspected priests still in active roles would not be suspended unless the facts against them were clearly established.

The head of Portugal's Bishops' Conference (CEP), Jose Ornelas, also said that the Church would not pay reparations to victims.

The CEP met on Friday to discuss ways to tackle the issue after a report last month said at least 4,815 children were sexually abused by members of the Roman Catholic Church in Portugal - mostly priests - over 70 years.

That report by a Church-funded, one-year commission added that its findings were the "tip of the iceberg", and commission head Pedro Strecht said more than 100 priests suspected of child sexual abuse remained active in Church roles.

Ornelas - who is himself being investigated by public prosecutors for covering up sex abuse at an orphanage in Mozambique in 2011 but denies any wrongdoing - told Friday's news conference that "nobody was guilty" until a court said so.

The Church said it had received the list of alleged abusers and would use that to investigate the matter.

"We have to find these cases and really establish the truth of the facts (but) only with the list of names... It's very difficult," Ornelas said.

"I cannot remove someone from the ministry just because a person said 'This man abused someone'," he said.

CEP spokesperson Manuel Barbosa said there would be "zero tolerance" for abusers and those who covered up abuse.

Among the measures the CEP agreed on, Barbosa said the Church would offer "spiritual, psychological and psychiatric" support to victims and honour them with a memorial to be unveiled at this year's World Youth Day, set to take place in Lisbon this summer.

"It is with pain that we once again apologise to all victims of sexual abuse," Barbosa said. "We also reaffirm our firm intention to do everything possible to ensure that abuses do not happen again."

Barbosa said a group, also backed by the Church, would be created to continue to listen to the victims of abuse.

Keith Porteous Wood, president of Britain's National Secular Society and a long-time advocate for victims of clerical abuse, told Reuters that commissions financed by the Church faced "obstructions".

"Investigating 70 years in one year is just unrealistic, and you can't help but wonder whether that imposition... was actually an attempt to ensure as little as possible was reported," Wood said.

Wood said a new commission, preferably led by state judges, should be set up.

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