By Catarina Demony and Sergio Goncalves

LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal’s Roman Catholic Church said on Thursday it would create an independent commission to investigate historical child sexual abuse allegedly committed by members of the clergy following pressure from prominent congregants to lift a veil of silence around the issue.

Portugal’s Bishops’ Conference said in a statement that it decided to create the commission to improve the way cases are handled and to “carry out a study to clarify the history of this serious issue.”

The announcement comes after a major report by an independent commission in France revealed last month that around 3,000 priests and religious officials sexually abused more than 200,000 children over the past 70 years.

It was the latest blow for the Roman Catholic Church, which has been rocked by sexual abuse scandals around the world, often involving children, over the past 20 years.

In Portugal, more than 200 Catholics sent a letter to the Bishops’ Conference earlier this month urging them to launch an investigation similar to France’s, arguing that child sexual abuse was a “systemic” problem “directly related the exercise of power” within the church.

The signatories of the letter said that over the last decade “just over 10 cases” of sexual abuse of children by clergy members have been reported in the country but warned the number was likely to be significantly higher.

Currently, bishops in each of Portugal’s 21 dioceses are responsible for investigating alleged wrongdoing committed by clergy members but there is no overarching supervisory body.

In June, Pope Francis issued the most extensive revision to Catholic Church law in four decades, insisting that bishops take action against clerics who abuse minors and vulnerable adults.

Commission members are yet to be nominated, the bishop of the city of Setubal, Jose Ornelas, told a news conference on Monday, adding that the commission and members of the investigative body would have “independence to create their own processes and methodology.”

“We are not afraid, quite the contrary,” he said.

The letter to bishops, whose signatories included lawmakers, writers and other public figures, said the commission should include believers and nonbelievers, as well as experts in social science and justice.

The time span to be covered by the commission’s investigations is not yet clear but the letter’s signatories suggested it should cover five decades.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Sérgio Gonçalves in Lisbon; Editing by Aislinn Laing and Matthew Lewis)