The most arduous task the Commission to Study Child Sexual Abuse in the Church had on its hands was convincing the country that the silence of confessors, monasteries and archives would not be protected. That the truth would be revealed as much as possible. That the consensus of the highest spheres of Catholic institutions will be abolished. That, in short, there would finally be a glimmer of light, truth and justice not only to point out the criminals, but also to relieve some of the human pain of the victims.
The Commission led by Pedro Strecht was able to overcome the challenges. And it only succeeded because the Church finally realized that the long reign based on authority that tolerates abuse and complicit silence is over. The events and the brutality with which they were exposed to a series of high officials of the Church reveal at the same time the commitment, courage and consent of the bishops. The world changed this Monday morning.
Therefore, the Commission and the Church are to be congratulated, even if it is fair to attribute the inspiration of this redemptive moment to the work done by other truth commissions in other countries or the demanding and just speech of Pope Francis. And it is all the more commendable because for a long time it was hard to believe that the concern to clean the cobwebs from the cupboards and pull the rubbish from under the carpet could happen in churches like those in Portugal – or Spain.
The mere fact that Monday’s meeting took place at the Gulbenkian Foundation is only the first proof of the extraordinary progress that has been made. We still only have the “absolutely minimal” numbers of victims, we still need to analyze in depth the archives of the diocese, there are still many frightened by the past, who prefer silence to the drama of reliving memories. We don’t yet know what the Church is going to do with so much unsavory information, either in terms of compensating the victims or punishing the perpetrators who remain active. Either way, this Monday is a big day for the country.
It is because of its truth and liberating nature. All our lives we have been accustomed to the inevitability of articulate and irresistible priests, to the resignation that the violence they perpetrated was just another dogma that neither civil nor ecclesiastical justice could or even wanted to stop. As a society, we’ve gone through decades of guilt by resignation. The violence of unworthy priests or perverted catechists was known. But they ended up diluting into a reverent and fearful culture in which faith and the church functioned as forces of vengeance. It was hard to believe that anything would change.
The Commission’s report is chilling, but not surprising. Its value is measured not so much by the cases it identified or the specific stories it captured, but by essentially symbolizing the end of darkness. The resistance of the overmountain wings of the Church was defeated. Catholic leaders finally entered the rule of law, the era of truth and equality of all before the law.
The Commission opened a Pandora’s box shielded by the rigor and method of science. What has been known for a long time has just been revealed in a harsh but inevitable way. He gave a gift of light to Portuguese society and gave a balm of self-confidence so that the more progressive elite of the Church could break free from the violent and vile side it had acquiesced to for too long. As Pedro Strecht said at the end, “the pain of the truth hurts, but it only sets you free.”