Portugal’s leader criticized for comments on abuse

LISBON (HPD) — Portugal’s president is seeking to defuse criticism over comments he made that appeared to downplay revelations that more than 400 people were victims of child sexual abuse by members of the Portuguese Catholic Church.

A lay committee investigating child sexual abuse in the church said Tuesday that it has so far compiled a list of 424 alleged victims dating back to 1950. Hundreds of priests, some now deceased, are under suspicion.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa commented on the revelation: “Having 400 cases does not seem like much to me because in other countries investigating shorter periods there were thousands of cases.”

Portugal has 10.3 million inhabitants.

The head of state’s comment drew widespread criticism, with accusations of a lack of compassion, and several hours later a statement on the presidential website sought to clarify his opinion.

The official statement said the president regretted “that more people have not come forward, because the total so far does not seem particularly high, considering the likely sad truth, both in Portugal and in the rest of the world.”

The head of state also wants investigations to continue and any evidence sent to the attorney general’s office, the statement added.

But the uproar did not die down, prompting Rebelo to give separate late-night live interviews to two national broadcasters, where he said the cases are “very serious.”

Prime Minister Antonio Costa came to the president’s aid on Wednesday, telling reporters he was sure the head of state’s initial comments had been misunderstood.

The investigation committee, which began work in January this year, continues to urge victims to come forward.

Before the panel began its work, church officials said there had been only a few cases of abuse in Portugal.

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