26 Nov, 2021 @ 10:30
3 mins read

ANALYSIS: Spain’s clergy downplays its legacy of sexual abuse

Photo by Saint John's Seminary on Unsplash
Photo by Saint John's Seminary on Unsplash

CLEANLINESS might be next to godliness but Spain’s Catholic Church ignores demands from sexual abuse victims to air their dirty washing in public

Spain’s Catholic Church has refused to launch an independent inquiry into the shocking sexual abuse carried out within its ranks over the past 70 years, maintaining, “there’s only a few cases,” amounting to “0.8%” of the priesthood.

At the end of a week-long gathering of bishops in Madrid, it stated, “We are not prepared to undertake sociological or statistical investigations. Why is all the focus on the Catholic Church? There are cases in sports federations. Has FIFA or the Spanish Olympic Committee been asked for a general investigation?”

The Church also made the surprising claim that they were frontrunners on tackling the issue.

“We are the first Episcopal Conference in the world to approve a collection of norms with which to deal with cases of sexual abuse against minors and people with impaired reasoning,” Church spokesman, Luis Argüello, declared in a post-convention press conference, though he admitted that none of the victims had been given the space to air their grievances during the gathering.

Spain is the only country in Europe, apart from Italy, to be downplaying the abuse while Portugal has just given the green light for a national investigative commission, and France recently presented the 2,500-page Suavé report, carried out externally but funded by the Church, on murky practises taking place in its inner sanctum, citing at least 216,000 victims of between 2,900 and 3,200 paedophile priests since 1950.

Other countries to have taken the plunge include Belgium, Ireland and Germany, with the US blazing the trail in 2002.

But after the Episcopal Conference’s jamboree, hopes were dashed for more transparency from Spain’s clergy, which hitched its wagon to the dictatorship during the Franco years and appears to still be clinging to a sense of impunity.

“The ecclesiastical hierarchy of Spain should stop committing the sin of arrogance and assume the institution’s responsibilities when it comes to treating the victims and survivors of paedophilia with respect and empathy, providing compensation and reparation for the sake of truth and justice, values that they intend to continue to shun,” the director of the Foundation of Stolen Childhood (ANIR) Juan Cautrecosas told The Olive Press shortly after Argüello delivered the verdict.

The facts and figures within Spain remain conveniently vague, though Cautrecosas is convinced that in reality they mirror those of France. “They are the same if not higher,” he says. “The figure of 0.8% is absolutely false.”

So far, the Church in Spain has revealed that 220 cases have come under internal investigation between 2001 and April 2021 while the Jesuit Order has gone one step further, producing a report admitting to the abuse of 81 minors by 65 Jesuit priests between 1927 and 2020.

But the Spanish Church’s admissions have only served to infuriate the victims and the associations representing them.

“It is shameful and intolerable that they continue to deny the truth,” says Cautrecosas, whose own son suffered sexual abuse in an Opus Dei school in Bilbao in 2010 at the age of 12.

The priest finally got sentenced to 11 years in 2018, which was reduced to two years by the Supreme Court, while the family paid dearly for seeking justice, with threats that drove them out of their home.

But calls for more accountability have fallen on deaf ears, with the Church insisting that victims should approach its own Offices for the Protection of Minors that were set up in March 2020 on the orders of Pope Francis.

According to Argüello, the Church will attend to anyone who comes to these offices, which can be found in each of Spain’s 70 dioceses.

But, as ANIR’s Cautrecosas has been quick to point out, “It is vital to look for organizations other than those in which the damage was done,” adding that, to date, the Church’s Offices for the Protection of Minors have “had very little effect and lack rigour.”

Tellingly, Argüello insists that the offices have received few complaints since they opened a year and a half ago.

In fact, according to the ANIR president, victims have found the press to be a more effective vehicle for getting their stories heard, with El País compiling a data base of 945 victims and 363 cases to date.

“Without the media, many victims wouldn’t have been able to come forward,” says Cautrecosas. “My son was 12 when he was abused. He still suffers from the after-effects of the abuse. It’s not like flu that you can take a paracetamol for.

“When we spoke out, our lives were made impossible, as has been the case for many of the victims in our association.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising the Spanish Church is dragging its feet on an independent investigation, given the damning indictment delivered to representatives of France’s Catholic hierarchy in Lourdes during the presentation of the Suavé report at the start of October.

“You are an embarrassment to our humanity,” François Devaux, director of the victim’s association La Parol Liberee told them.

What is clear is that the Spanish Church’s victims feel abused, first physically by a member of the priesthood, then emotionally by the apparent indifference of an institution that looks loathed to come out from behind its veil of silence.

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