Pope Francis blasted Portugal’s Catholic Church leaders for the “scandal” of clergy sex abuse Wednesday as he kicked off a trip to the European country, saying their actions had helped drive the faithful away.
Francis waded head-on into the scandal roiling the Portuguese church upon his arrival in Lisbon, where he is spending five days for the first World Youth Day Catholic festival since the COVID-19 pandemic.
A panel of experts hired by the Portuguese church reported in February that priests and other church personnel may have abused at least 4,815 boys and girls since 1950. The report represented the latest reckoning by a European church with its legacy of abuse and cover-up.
Prior to the report, Portuguese church officials had insisted there had only been a handful of cases. After its release, they initially refused to remove named abusers from the ministry or to compensate victims.
Francis raised the issue during a vigil service for Portuguese clergy and nuns at the capital’s iconic Jeronimos Monastery, where hundreds of people gathered in February to pray for abuse victims after the experts’ report was released.
The pope demanded that bishops better respond to abuse victims by accepting them and listening to them.
Speaking in his native Spanish, Francis acknowledged that many clergy and nuns in countries with once-thriving parishes feel weary about their vocations because the Catholic faithful are increasingly detached from their faith.
“It is often accentuated by the disappointment and anger with which some people view the church, at times due to our poor witness and the scandals that have marred her face and call us to a humble and ongoing purification, starting with the anguished cry of the victims, who must always be accepted and listened to,” he said.
Francis is widely expected to meet in private with abuse survivors this week, as he has done during past foreign trips. Bishop Jose Ornelas, the head of the Portuguese bishops’ conference, promised in a speech earlier Wednesday to devote “our special attention to the protection of the welfare of children and the undertaking to protect them from all kinds of abuse.”
The Portuguese Catholic Church also promised in March to build a memorial to victims that would be unveiled during World Youth Day, but organizers scrapped the plan a few weeks ago.
In its place, victims’ advocates launched a campaign called “This is our memorial.” Hours before the pope arrived, they put up a billboard in central Lisbon reading “4,800+ Children Abused by the Catholic Church in Portugal.” They said it was paid for through a crowdfunding campaign that was so successful the organizers can put up more billboards around the city, though it wasn’t clear if Francis would see any during his visit.
Francis came to Lisbon to participate in his fourth World Youth Day, the raucous Catholic jamboree launched by St. John Paul II in the 1980s to invigorate the next generation of Catholics in their faith. More than 1 million young people from around the world were expected to attend the events in Lisbon, which run through Saturday.
As he was travelling to Portugal, the pope said he would continue urging young people to “make a mess” – a reference to his now-famous exhortation during his first World Youth Day as pontiff, in Rio de Janeiro in 2013. It was a call for young people to shake things up in their parishes and has come to symbolise Francis’ own revolutionary reforms that have shaken up the Catholic Church at large.
Francis’ first stop in Portugal was at the Belem National Palace, the official presidential residence in an area west of Lisbon from where Portugal’s maritime explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries set sail. Addressing Portuguese government authorities and the diplomatic corps at a nearby conference centre, the pope referred to Portugal’s sea-faring history, its place in Europe and its openness to others.
“We are sailing amid storms on the ocean of history, and we sense the need for courageous courses of peace,” he said. “It is my hope that World Youth Day will be, for the ‘Old Continent,’ the aged continent, an impulse towards universal openness.”
Citing Russia’s war in Ukraine, global warming and Europe’s aging population, he urged young people, in particular, to take up the mantle to build a future together.
“I dream of a Europe, the heart of the West, which employs its immense talents to settling conflicts and lighting lamps of hope,” Francis said.
Hot weather could be an issue during Francis’ five-day visit, given temperatures in Lisbon are expected to hit 35C on Sunday. Many young people were expected to camp out in the vast, unshaded Tagus Park starting Saturday afternoon, first to participate in an evening vigil and then to be in place Sunday morning for Francis’ final Mass.
Registered participants are receiving reusable water bottles and sunhats in their welcome knapsacks, but some were more worried for Francis, given his weakened condition: The 86-year-old Argentine pope was hospitalized for nine days in June to repair a hernia and remove scar tissue from previous intestinal surgeries.