‘No desire for truth’ in Spain’s Catholic church over child sex abuse

Spanish tour guide Fernando Garcia Salmones, 60 years old, poses at his home during an interview for AFP in Madrid on October 18, 2021. Unlike in other countries where child sex scandals have forced the Catholic Church towards accountability, the Spanish church has actively avoided investigating abuses by its clergy to the fury of victims.

In recent decades, thousands have spoken out about harrowing abuses by clergy across the United States, Europe, Australia and beyond, prompting probes in many nations seeking redress for the victims. But why not in Spain?

In France alone, a study commissioned by the French Catholic Church found last month its clergy had abused some 216,000 minors since 1950.

But in Spain, there are no official statistics on child sex abuse.

The Church says it has counted just 220 cases since 2001, and has ruled out “actively” investigating any such allegations.

“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”.

Historically, Spain has always been a deeply-Catholic country, and some 55 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, a religion deeply embedded in the country’s culture.

The Church in Spain has not explained why it is refusing to hold a comprehensive investigation, saying only it has put in place protocols to manage allegations of abuses by its clergy.

No accountability

For García Salmones, memories of abuse still haunt him today.

“I was studying at the Claretian School of Madrid, I was 14 and one day, the priest jumped on me and continued abusing me every day for practically a whole year,” he said.

On one occasion, he was “abused by the priest and another person who came into the room”, leading him to conclude that the school “knew what was happening and protected” his abuser.

He didn’t speak about his ordeal until he was 40 but by then, the crime was too old to be investigated.

The priest he accused of abuse died in 2009 “without any kind of accountability”.

After García Salmones went public in 2018, he said the school moved to prevent any fresh abuses, with a management statement stressing its “zero tolerance” of any such conduct and commitment “to always investigate any inappropriate behaviour by its members”.

But he says the first reaction of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference (CEE) was to dismiss his account as “a bid to seek financial compensation”.

A picture taken in 2014 shows archbishop of Granada and other priests during a mass in a gesture of apology to victims of abuse. Photo: AFP PHOTO/ STRINGER (Photo by AFP)
A picture taken in 2014 shows archbishop of Granada and other priests during a mass in a gesture of apology to victims of abuse.

‘Stonewalling and denial’

The Bishops’ Conference declined an interview with AFP.

In a written response, it said it had put in place “protocols for action where cases of abuse were identified and specific training for people working with young people and children”.

It “was aware of 220 cases that had been investigated since 2001”, and had set up offices for “child protection and abuse prevention” in its 70 dioceses where complaints could be filed.

Such offices could also “help victims” and “investigate, where possible, the circumstances under which (abuses) occurred”.

According to the CEE’s website, its 2010 action protocol outlined steps such as barring anyone accused of abuses from working with children.

In 2019, a committee presented a draft child protection decree, which remains unfinished.

But the Church has ruled out any exhaustive inquiry.

“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”.

‘Damaging human rights’

Jesús Zudaire, who runs a victims’ association in the northern Navarre region and was himself abused, says Spain could “easily” have a similar number of cases to France.

He highlights the power of the Church in Spanish society and its cosy arrangement with the decades-long dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which ended in 1975.

El País newspaper began investigating abuse allegations in 2018 and has since received details of 932 cases.

In not taking a proactive approach, the Church “is damaging human rights” and inflicting further harm on the victims, says campaigner Cuatrecasas, whose 24-year-old son was abused by a teacher at a Catholic school in Bilbao between 2008 and 2010.

The teacher was initially handed 11 years in jail but the Supreme Court reduced his sentence to two years, and as a first offender he spent no time behind bars.

Although the Church follows abuse prevention protocols in line with those laid out by the Vatican, victims’ groups want the Spanish government to step in with legislation to prevent Church cover-ups.

Earlier this year, Spain’s parliament approved a child protection law extending the statute of limitations for abuse cases, meaning survivors can report abuses for up to 15 years after they turn 35.

Previously, the clock started when they were 18.

Although victims wanted the legislation to be retroactive, they hailed the step as a positive first move.

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