Portugal panel gathers over 400 testimonies of church sex abuse victims

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LISBON, Oct 11 (Reuters) - A commission investigating child sex abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church said on Tuesday it has already gathered more than 400 testimonies of alleged victims but admitted the number of actual cases was "much higher".

The Portuguese commission started its work in January after a report in France revealed around 3,000 priests and religious officials sexually abused over 200,000 children over the past 70 years.

The Portuguese Catholic Church has been rocked in recent weeks by various cases of alleged cover-up of sexual abuse including by bishops who remain active in church roles.

"Concealment is inherent in sexual abuse cases," said commission member Daniel Sampaio, a Portuguese psychiatrist. "Of course there was concealment by the Church."

One of the highest-profile cases involves Jose Ornelas, who is the head of the Portuguese Bishops Conference (CEP). Public prosecutors have said they are investigating Ornelas. A teacher has accused him of covering up sex abuse at an orphanage in Mozambique in 2011.

According to Portuguese newspaper Publico, the teacher said he reported sex abuse by two Italian priests to Ornelas, who was in charge of the mission at that time. The teacher claims Ornelas took no action.

CEP defended Ornelas in a statement and said that he reported the case to the local congregation in Mozambique, which found no evidence of abuse.

So far, 424 testimonies have been validated, but Pedro Strecht, the head of the commission, said the number of victims was "much higher" as many of the people the commission spoke with mentioned others they knew who were also abused.

Portugal's President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a conservative, came under fire after he said "400 cases (of alleged sexual abuse of minors) doesn't seem to me to be particularly high".

On Twitter, lawmakers from left to right have described Rebelo de Sousa's comments as "unacceptable".

From the 424 testimonies, 17 were sent to the public prosecutors' office for investigation as all others were committed over 20 years ago and legal proceedings can no longer be initiated.

There are 30 other testimonies currently under evaluation that may be eligible to be sent to the public prosecutors' office, Strecht said.

"There are several situations in which the same alleged abuser is mentioned by different people," he said, adding most of the victims were young boys. "It is unequivocal that given these traumatic events...the victims expect an apology."

Strecht said his team would present a final report in January next year.

Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Pedro Nunes in Lisbon; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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Thomson Reuters

Portugal-based multimedia correspondent reporting on politics, economics, the environment and daily news. Previous experience in local journalism in the UK., co-founded a project telling the stories of Portuguese-speakers living in London, and edited a youth-led news site.