Activists are calling for an independent probe into alleged sexual abuse in Spain”s Catholic Church.
They insist the number of cases is on a par with neighbour France, where a recent investigation found 218,000 victims since 1950.
But as the Episcopal Conference’s gathering of bishops closed in Madrid on Friday (November 19), the church denied the claims.
Spokesman Luis Argüello reiterated the institution would not be “proactive” in undertaking an external investigation into allegations of sexual abuse.
“We are not prepared to carry out statistical and sociological investigations,” he said.
“There are only a few cases,” he added, quoting the figure 0.8% of priests guilty of such crimes since 1950. “Why is the focus only on the Catholic Church?”
The denial comes as France, Ireland, Germany and Belgium have carried out independent investigations after the US blazed the trail in 2002; Portugal has also just appointed a national commission to do likewise.
“Spain is in a paradoxical position because it’s sandwiched between France and Portugal which have taken action,” says Gema Varona, a lecturer in criminal policy at the Basque Country University, which presented an independent study on sexual abuse within the Spanish Catholic Church this June along with the University of Barcelona and the Oberta Catalonia University.
Even before the Spanish Catholic Church gathering, the victims’ hopes for more accountability were negligible.
The jamboree failed to include a meeting with the victims themselves despite the fact that many are simply asking for their stories to be heard; stories such as that of Enrique Pérez Guerra, who says he was abused by 60-year-old Father Javier when he was just 12 in the Carmelitas monastery in Zaragoza, Aragon province, in 1968.
“I wanted to be a priest and a missionary,” he tells Euronews. “So I went to see Father Javier, to see if he could help me and he told me to come to his cell in the afternoons where he abused me. He was highly respected by my family and by all the people around and, while the abuse was going on, he would come to our house for dinner. He came across as an affable, kind man. The abuse went on for five months until he was moved to Andalusia. All that time, I was terrified my parents would find out. I thought I was committing a mortal sin and I asked him to give me confession, but he laughed in my face.”
It took 10 years for Enrique to speak out.
“I self-harmed and failed at school and I often zoned out,” says the 65-year-old who later wrote the memoir Hidden Afternoons. “I was terrified I would turn out like Father Javier. In those days, being a homosexual was confused with being a paedophile so when I started going out with the woman who is now my wife, I was relieved. But the guilt is still there; I still have dreams.”
Emiliano Álvarez Delgado’s experience was equally if not more harrowing. He was allegedly abused by a paedophile ring of priests at the San José de la Bañeza Seminary for Minors in Castile and Leon in 1977 when he was just 10.
“They came into the dormitories at night and chose which bed they would go to,” says the 55-year-old. “They pulled back the covers on your bed and took down your trousers and touched, kissed and sucked your penis. I never told my parents because they wouldn’t have believed me and there was a climate of fear in the school and lots of beatings. They would beat you for anything. Once they sent me flying 10 metres down a corridor, they hit me so hard. I don’t know what I was more scared of – the beatings or the abuse.”
Emiliano ran away from the seminary when he was 12.
“I thought when I got out of there it would be over, but then comes the legacy,” he says. “In my case, it came in the shape of alcohol, drugs and prostitution. I’m okay now, but I will probably never get over what they did to me entirely.”
“Get over it” was the message Enrique received when he was finally seen by the Bishop of Mallorca, Sebastià Taltavull, several years ago.
“I wrote to him three times and the third time, he agreed to see me. He told me I should forget the abuse and put a good face on it,” he says.
According to Juan Cautrecosas, president of the Association for Stolen Childhood (ANIR), whose son was the victim of sexual abuse while attending an Opus Dei school in Bilbao, the recent statistics published by the Church stating that 220 cases of abuse are under investigation is a far cry from reality, given that the Suavé report produced by the external investigation in France has cited a minimum of 216,000 victims since 1950.
“It’s absolutely false that paedophile cases within the [Spanish Catholic] Church amount to 0.8%,” he says. “They’ve manipulated the statistics in Spain, resorting only to the ANAR foundation for reports of abuse. But many victims have not reported their abuse to ANAR as brilliant as that foundation is. In Spain, the figures are similar to those in France, if not higher. There is a tradition of transparency in France whereas in Spain, there’s the Church’s sense of impunity and the victims’ fear of repercussions.”
The fear is not unfounded. When Juan and his wife reported his son’s abuse a year after it took place in 2010, the family were bombarded with threats that forced them to move house in 2013, said Cautrecosas.
“We got calls with the caller remaining silent then putting the phone down and we were stopped in the street by a sinister figure rubbing his hands and telling us we would pay for what we were doing. The school did nothing and took the side of the priest who got 11 years, which the Supreme Court reduced to two,” he says.
When Emiliano reported his abuse several years ago, he says the bishop allowed his surviving abuser to take him to court for making false accusations. His more recent checkered past was brought up and he was depicted as a delinquent on the make.
Varona suggests that the figure of 0.8% is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Given this is from 1950 — when Franco was in power and there were many religious schools — it is not credible,” she says.
But Spain’s Catholic Church insists any abuse is exceptional. On top of which, bishops have declared themselves pioneers in getting to the bottom of any allegations with a ground-breaking set of rules to bolster the support offered by their Offices for the Protection of Minors, which were set up in March 2020 in each of Spain’s 70 dioceses on the orders of Pope Francis.
But Juan Cuatrecasos from ANIR is incensed by their claims.
“It is not acceptable for them to boast about alleged anti-paedophilia norms, declaring themselves pioneers, when it is already well known that their attitude of not being pro-active in the investigation of their crimes betrays them,” he says. “It is shameful and intolerable that they continue to deny and conceal the truth. November 20 is Universal Children’s Day; it would have been an act of humanity and empathy if they had taken this into account before disrespecting children and their rights again.”
Regarding the Offices for the Protection of Minors, Varona says, “I know from victims that have gone to these offices that they don’t feel well-treated. You have to create an independent entity like Ireland’s Towards Healing.”
So will Spain’s Catholic Church be persuaded to launch an investigation? After all, the hymn La Muerte no es el Final, composed by the late priest Ceráreo Gabaráin, who was accused of multiple cases of abuse while teaching at the Maristas religious school in Madrid, is still played by the Spanish Armed Forces and sung by King Felipe VI on National Day, with suggestions it should be banned met with incredulity.
“Such a conviction would be medieval,” said spokesman Argüello after the US banned it in August.
Enrique mentions the 2015 movie Spotlight, the true story of how the Boston Globe flagged up the child abuse within the local Catholic Archdiocese and says he feels sad the same thing won’t happen in Spain.
“Any change here will be to a lesser extent,” he says. “The transition hasn’t been completed, culturally speaking. There are still many taboos; we’re not a free-thinking society; not a full democracy. It’s well known that you better watch out if you’re taking issue with the clergy, and when people want to say you’ve come up against a brick wall, there’s the Spanish saying ‘You’ve come up against the Church’.”
At the end of the 117th assembly of Spain’s Episcopal Conference, some of the alleged victims may be feeling exactly that.
Euronews asked Spain’s Catholic Church to comment on this article but it had not responded by the time of publication.