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Victims hope pope's Portugal visit to shine spotlight on clerical abuse

by Reuters Journalist

Filipa Almeida was 17 when she was sexually abused by a priest. She stayed silent for years but eventually found the strength to speak out and hopes a visit by Pope Francis to her native Portugal this week will remind the world of thousands of similar crimes.

"I lived with this secret for 22 years," the 43-year-old told Reuters of her ordeal, which she said occurred during a religious training course. "It's not easy to live with these experiences."

She is one of at least 4,815 people who were sexually abused by clergy - mostly priests - in Portugal over 70 years, according to an investigation published in February. The commission in charge said that was just the "tip of the iceberg" and that more than 100 priests suspected of child sexual abuse remained active in church roles.

Speaking ahead of the pope's arrival, scheduled for Wednesday morning, Lisbon Patriarch Manuel Clemente said the Portuguese church's commitment to solving the issue was "total".

But Almeida said the visit was just highlighting the lack of progress.

While the Church received the list of suspects in March, promised to investigate and has suspended a few priests, some others have already returned to their roles. Almeida said the priest who abused her was not suspended during an investigation.


The Portuguese Bishops' Conference has said it cannot suspend priests unless facts against them are clearly established, but that there would be "zero tolerance" for abusers and their enablers.

No reparations are planned, but the bishops have promised "spiritual, psychological and psychiatric" support.

Unimpressed, Almeida and two other victims launched the Coracao Silenciado (Silenced Heart) association, which gives a voice and support to those who have suffered abuse.

"The only thing that helps us is to make other victims feel like they are not alone," Almeida said.

Francis, who is visiting Portugal to attend a global gathering of young Catholics known as  World Youth Day, is expected to meet privately with abuse victims.

Almeida's association was not invited to attend, but she still sees the event as an opportunity to "face the problem" and alert attendees about the warning signs of abuse and to encourage victims to report incidents.

"There will be young people from all over the world and the reality (of abuse) is present in all continents," she said. "It's a great opportunity for the Church to do something."

The Church had promised a memorial would be unveiled during the gathering, but a date has not been set, with the Church saying the project was still being studied.

But ultimately, the only way to get justice is for abusers to be held accountable, said Almeida, who is scared the priest who abused her might be abusing others. 

"The responsibly now falls on the Church," she said. "They knew about the situation and did nothing."

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