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Pope Francis Lands in Portugal, as Catholic Church Grapples With Abuse Scandal

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Pope Francis arrived in Lisbon, Portugal on Wednesday for World Youth Day. The event, which is expected to see around 1 million people attend, is a festive gathering for young Catholics held every three years to encourage deeper connection with the faith.

Approximately 85% of Portugal’s population identifies as Catholic and the church is generally held in high esteem in Portuguese society. But the Pope's trip comes as the church in Portugal is under fire over a 500-page report published in February investigating decades of sexual abuse by clergy members involving at least 4,815 children.

The report's publication has caused shock in the Catholic county. “There was indignation,” says António Costa Pinto, a professor of political science at the University of Lisbon. “Even the President, who comes from the center-right and is Catholic, had a reaction of indignation.”

In a sign of lingering anger over the report's findings, a giant billboard was put up on one of Lisbon’s busiest streets ahead of the Pope's visit with the words, “4800+ CHILDREN ABUSED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN PORTUGAL.”

Júlia Garraio, a social sciences researcher who helped conduct archival research for the report, says the scale of abuse shocked many Portuguese. “I think that the society broadly had no idea of the scope. Before, you sometimes had this idea that yes, perhaps we have a few cases, but they are very few and the rotten apples,” she says. “The scope was quite significant.”

Leaders of Portugal’s Catholic church have apologized to victims and asked for forgiveness, saying that that "the culture of the Church" must change. The church also set up a new commission to support abuse victims.

But many feel accountability and reform are coming too slowly. "The little that has been done is thanks to the pressure of the media," Filipa Almeida, a founder of Portugal's first association representing victims, told AFP.

The Pope is expected to meet privately with abuse victims during his five day trip to the country. The exact date and location of the meeting have not been publicly released in order to protect the privacy of victims.

Francis is seen as a relatively progressive Pope by most Catholics, and he issued a landmark decree in 2019 requiring all Vatican personnel and Holy See diplomats to report sexual abuse claims immediately and without delay. Officials found not to have reported these crimes to Vatican City State police could face up to six months in prison.

Despite the Pope’s highly publicized reforms, critics say too little action has been taken. 

Commission members told the Washington Post that church officials sought to thwart their work. Victims also expressed anger over the church’s decision to not investigate some priests while only briefly suspending others.

The commission’s report comes in the wake of similar findings in other countries. A 2,500-page report documenting incidences of child sexual abuse in France and released in 2021 received major public attention in Portugal.

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