By CiarÁn Giles
Spain’s Catholic bishops’ conference says it has found evidence of 728 sexual abusers within the church since 1945, through the testimony of 927 victims, in its first public report on the issue.
The church said 83% of the victims and 99% of the abusers were male and that more than 60% of the offenders were dead.
In a report presented Thursday, more than 50% of offenders were said to be priests. The rest were other church officials.
The church said that most cases occurred in the last century, 75% of them before 1990.
The conference said the collection of testimonies was continuing and the figure would be updated periodically. The data was collected in some 200 offices for the protection of minors, set up by the church around Spain in 2019.
Leading daily El País, which has been reporting constantly on cases in Spain and abroad, said Friday the real figures of abuses within the church were likely to be much higher, as the church report only referred to cases recorded since 2019 and did not include the number of cases the church was aware of before that date.
A Madrid-based law firm that is conducting a parallel inquiry ordered for the Spanish Episcopal Conference has told the media that the number of victims is likely to be in the thousands. The firm has yet to produce its results.
Up until very recently, the Spanish church has been reluctant to carry out investigations or release information on sexual abuse cases. Spain’s state prosecutor earlier this year complained that the bishops were withholding information. The bishops denied this.
“Members of this our church have hurt other members of the church or society,” said César García Magán, the Spanish Episcopal Conference secretary general, said at the presentation. ”And for this reason, we feel pain and shame.”
But he said that this would be meaningless if it did not lead to changes in the ways children were protected and offenders sidelined. He said the church was also committed to sharing its findings and must use the lessons learnt to ensure “sexual abuses do not occur again in the heart of the church.”
The bishops´ report said the abuses occurred mostly in schools, seminaries, and parish buildings.
Spain’s parliament voted in 2022 to open the first official investigation led by the country’s ombudsman into the extent of sexual abuse committed by priests and church officials after El País published allegations of abuse involving more than 1,200 victims.
Earlier this year, the ombudsman said his independent commission had collected testimonies from 445 victims, but the probe was continuing.
Only a handful of countries have had government-initiated or parliamentary inquiries into abuse like Spain’s.
The most extensive took place in Australia. In 2017, it found that 7% of Catholic priests were accused of abusing minors between 1980 and 2010. Judge-led investigations in Ireland from 2005 impacted the Catholic Church’s once-dominant influence in society and politics.
And in France, an independent inquiry estimated in 2021 that some 330,000 children were victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy or other Catholic-affiliated lay employees from 1950-2020.
In neighboring Portugal, an expert panel said this year that more than 4,800 individuals may have been victims of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church.
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