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Abuse cases grow in Portugal amid questions about Bishop Nobel

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Cases of clergy sexual abuse are casting a shadow over the Catholic Church in Portugal, trapping top officials even as authorities struggle to explain why a Nobel Peace Prize-winning bishop was given sanctuary. at the center of accusations of sexual misconduct. .

Top Catholic leaders apologized over the weekend for decades of abuse and cover-up (current estimates number around 400 cases) and the Archbishop of Lisbon pleaded with the faithful not to lose faith in the church.

“Be confident that for our part we will do the best we can, with respect for the law and the Gospel,” Archbishop Manuel Clemente said after Sunday Mass.

Attention was focused on the Portuguese church authorities, as well as the Vatican, last week when the Holy See’s sexual abuse office confirmed a Dutch media report that in 2020 there had been secretly sanctioned Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, the revered hero of the independence of East Timor, a small former Portuguese colony in East Asia. Belo, who lives in Portugal, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.

Other revelations unwelcome for the Portuguese church have piled up in recent days, just as Portugal looks to gain momentum to host World Youth Day next year in Lisbon. Pope Francis will attend the event, which is an important occasion in the Catholic calendar.

Portugal’s attorney general’s office confirmed to The Associated Press on Monday that the president of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference, Bishop José Ornelas, is being investigated for suspicions that he covered up for abusive priests in Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony.

Ornelas, who presides over Portugal’s world-famous Fatima shrine, has denied any wrongdoing or misconduct and has vowed to cooperate with any investigation, but the investigation has increased pressure on Portuguese church authorities.

Ornelas flew to Italy over the weekend for a private meeting at the Vatican with Francis, who also received his ambassador to Portugal. The Vatican did not provide details about the meetings.

Ornelas’s visit to the pope came two months after Lisbon Archbishop Clemente went to meet the pontiff amid a spate of allegations of child sexual abuse by priests and alleged cover-ups by senior members of the the Portuguese church.

The scandals came against a backdrop of revelations published by a secular committee investigating historic cases of sexual abuse in churches in Portugal. Since January, it has uncovered around 400 suspected cases. Previously, church officials had said they were aware of only a handful of cases.

On Saturday, the diocese of Braga, in northern Portugal, issued an apology for the “pain and suffering” caused by allegations of sexual abuse against a local priest by men and women in the area. The alleged abuse occurred in the 1990s, with victims complaining that nothing happened after they sounded the alarm after the turn of the century.

Many unanswered questions remain about Belo’s time in Portugal. The Salesian missionary order to which he belongs said that he took him in at the request of his superiors. His current whereabouts are unclear.

The Vatican has banned Belo from having contact with minors or with East Timor, based on allegations of misconduct that reached Rome in 2019.

The East Timor Embassy in Lisbon did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment on a Portuguese media report that, following revelations last week, it picked him up from a Salesian property in Lisbon and took him to a undisclosed location.

Belo has said he retired in 2002 for health reasons and to give newly independent East Timor a different church leadership. But a year after his retirement, Belo had been sent by the Vatican and the Salesians to Mozambique to work as a missionary priest. Portugal maintains close ties with the African country.

There, Belo has said, he spent his time “giving catechism to children, giving retreats to young people.”

The United Nations and advocates for victims have called on Francis to authorize an investigation about the circumstances surrounding Belo’s retirement in 2002, when he was 20 years short of normal retirement age, and why he was sent to Mozambique.

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