FOCUS: Will Spain finally act on child abuse claims in its Catholic church?

The Spanish Parliament on Tuesday took its very first step towards an investigation into child sex abuse within the country's church, although so far they’ve only agreed to consider opening an inquiry. Will Spain go all the way and punish those found guilty?

Priests in Granada cathedral repent during a mass in 2014, as a gesture of apology to victims of abuse. Photo: PHOTO/ STRINGER
Priests in Granada cathedral repent during a mass in 2014, as a gesture of apology to victims of abuse by the clergy. Photo: PHOTO/ STRINGER

Until now, there has never been an official investigation into alleged abuse by members of the clergy, not by Spain’s government nor by the Spanish church itself.

In 2018, El País newspaper began investigating abuse allegations and received details of 1,246 cases.

The Church in Spain, which has only recognised 220 cases over the past 20 years, has never held a comprehensive investigation, saying it has protocols in place to manage abuse allegations.

But the situation appears to be changing in this historically religious country, where some 55 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic and where 1.5 million children study in some 2,500 Catholic schools.

On Tuesday, Spain’s parliament agreed to consider opening an inquiry following a petition by Podemos, the hard-left partner in Spain’s left-wing coalition, and two pro-independence parties, the Catalan ERC and the Basque EH Bildu.

For such a commission to be set up, it will have to be voted through a plenary session by a simple majority of lawmakers. No date has yet been set.

PM ‘not saying no’

Although Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist party has backed the idea in principle, it hasn´t said if it would prefer an investigation by a parliamentary commission or by an independent expert committee, as seen in Australia and the Netherlands.

“We are completely dedicated to studying all possible formulas for doing this in the best possible way, that allows the facts to be clarified, to address the victims’ pain and above all to prevent this from happening again,” government spokeswoman Isabel Rodriguez said on Tuesday.

“We’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it well,” she added.

“We’re not saying no,” Sánchez said last week while offering public support to Catalan writer Alejandro Palomas, who had admitted being abused as an eight-year-old by a priest in the mid-1970s.

“Thank you for your courage in sharing your moving testimony,” Sánchez tweeted.

“I assure you that your courage, and that of many others who have taken this step, will help us to address all the pain of all victims.”

Although the centre-right Ciudadanos party is in favour of an inquiry, the right-wing opposition Popular Party is opposed unless the initiative is broadened to look at “all institutions” within Spain.

The far-right Vox, Spain’s third-largest parliamentary force, is totally opposed to any such probe.

‘Has to be independent of state’

Fernando García Salmones, who was abused as a teenager and belongs to victims’ group Infancia Robada, said opening an inquiry “is a good option”.

“I just wish (all the parties) would agree to do something properly,” Salmones told AFP.

A petition launched at the weekend by abuse victim Miguel Angel Hurtado calling for an independent expert inquiry had gathered more than 55,000 signatures by Tuesday.

“What a parliamentary commission can do in the short term is to take emergency measures to fight against institutional paedophilia,” Hurtado told RNE radio. “An expert-led truth commission would allow for a complete quantification of the problem.”

“Spanish civil society will not accept a compromise between the government and the Episcopal Conference,” a grouping of Spain’s leading bishops, he told RTVE public television.

“Any investigation has to be independent of the state.”

Until now the Episcopal Conference, known as CEE, has ruled out any exhaustive inquiry, insisting last year it was “not going to proactively engage in a comprehensive investigation of the matter”.

“We are not going to proactively engage in a comprehensive investigation of the matter,” Monsignor Luis Arguello, the CEE’s secretary general said in September.

The Church “gives the appearance of doing something but it’s not,” says Juan Cuatrecasas, head of victims’ association Infancia Robada, or ‘stolen childhood’ in English.

“It is doing its homework very quickly and very badly,” he says, pointing to a bigger picture of “stonewalling and denial”.

Spanish tour guide Fernando García Salmones, 60 years old, was abused as a teenager at a school run by Roman Catholic priests in Madrid. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

Within the Spanish church, the investigation procedure is different, with each diocese carrying out its own smaller, individual probes rather having an overarching inquiry, the CEE said.

It said it had put protocols in place where abuse cases were identified, as well as training for those working with youngsters and children.

In December, the Vatican opened an internal investigation after El País passed on a dossier containing 251 cases of alleged abuse between 1948 and 2018.

According to El País, the Vatican will supervise the CEE’s investigation of these cases, although AFP was unable to independently confirm this.

In another sign the state is moving towards accountability, the public prosecutor’s office has begun compiling details of ongoing criminal proceedings against clergy to get a more accurate picture of the situation.

“The case of the Church in Spain is… shameful,” says Fernando García Salmones, who was abused as a teenager at a school run by Roman Catholic priests in Madrid.

“They have no desire to know the truth,” the 60-year-old tour guide told AFP, saying the abuse destroyed his life and left him feeling “dirty”, “guilty” and “like a piece of shit”.

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Spanish mother jailed for falsely accusing ex-husband of child abuse

A Spanish court has jailed a woman for five years for repeatedly filing false reports about her ex-husband sexually abusing their daughter.

Spanish mother jailed for falsely accusing ex-husband of child abuse

According to El Mundo daily, the sentence was unprecedented in Spain.

In a ruling handed down by a court in the southern city of Granada which was seen by AFP on Wednesday, the unnamed woman was convicted of filing false allegations, offences against moral integrity and abandonment of parental responsibility.

She was also ordered to pay €40,000 ($42,000) each to the child and her father for the harm caused by her unfounded allegations, which were aimed at securing sole custody of her daughter, now nine.

The court also took away the mother’s parental responsibility for 10 years on grounds she posed “a threat to (her daughter’s) development”, according to court documents dated Monday.

The woman had filed eight reports to the police and the courts over a two-year period, accusing her husband of abuse and on one occasion rape as they were in the throes of getting divorced.

She also took her daughter to be examined by doctors and psychologists on 10 separate occasions.

None of them ever found any evidence of the alleged abuse.

The ongoing gynaecological and psychological examinations had an impact on the child’s “psychological stability and her performance at school”, according to the court documents.

The aim was to “obtain the sole and exclusive custody” of their daughter.

The sentence, which can be appealed, described the mother as a person with a predisposition for “lying” who displayed “shameless cynicism” and “cunning malice with obsessive overtones”.

The couple married in 2010 and had a daughter in 2012. But they split up in 2017 and the problems began a year later when the father, an English teacher, requested joint custody.

After his ex-wife began filing the false allegations against him, he lost most of his students along with his “emotion stability, peace of mind and sense of calm”, the court found.

“It’s like being buried alive,” he told El Mundo.

“It’s trying to kill someone without laying a finger on them… accusing them of the vilest, worst thing that a human being can do: harming your own daughter.”