Spanish clergy sexually abused more than 200,000 children, inquiry estimates

— Ombudsman says Catholic church’s response to cases ‘insufficient’ and calls for creation of a reparations fund

Spain’s national ombudsman, Ángel Gabilondo, addresses a press conference in Madrid.

By Agence France-Presse

More than 200,000 children are estimated to have been sexually abused in Spain by the Roman Catholic clergy since 1940, according to an independent commission.

The report did not give a specific figure but it said that in a poll of more than 8,000 adults, 0.6% said they had been sexual abused by members of the clergy when they were children. This figure equates to about 200,000 of Spain’s adult population of about 39 million.

The proportion increased to 1.13% – equating to more than 400,000 people – when including abuse by lay members of the church, Spain’s national ombudsman, Ángel Gabilondo, said at a news conference called to present the findings of the report.

The Roman Catholic church has been rocked by a series of sexual abuse scandals around the world, often involving children, over the past 20 years.

In Spain, a traditionally Catholic country that has become highly secular, clerical abuse allegations are only now gaining traction, leading to accusations by survivors of stonewalling.

“Unfortunately, for many years there has been a certain desire to deny abuses or a desire to conceal or protect the abusers,” said Gabilondo, a former education minister.

The report is critical of the attitude of the church, calling its response to cases of child abuse involving the clergy “insufficient”. It recommends the creation of a state fund to pay reparations to victims.

Just before the report was presented in parliament, the Spanish bishops conference said it would hold an extraordinary meeting on Monday to discuss its findings.

Spain’s parliament in March 2022 overwhelmingly approved the creation of an independent commission led by the ombudsman to “shed light” on allegations of sexual abuse of “defenceless boys and girls” in the Catholic church.

Spain’s Catholic church, which for years refused to carry out its own inquiry, declined to take part in the independent investigation, although it did cooperate by providing documents on cases of sexual abuse that had been collected by dioceses.

As political pressure mounted, in February 2022 it tasked a private law firm with an “audit” into past and present sexual abuse by clergy, teachers and others associated with the church, which should be completed by the end of the year.

The Spanish church said in June that it had discovered 927 cases of child abuse through a complaints procedure launched in 2020. It argues it has set up protocols for dealing with sexual abuse and has set up “child protection” offices within dioceses.

But an investigation by the top-selling daily newspaper El País that began in 2018 has since uncovered 2,206 victims and 1,036 alleged abusers dating back to 1927. “According to experts, this is just the tip of the iceberg,” the newspaper wrote on Friday before the report was published.

The church’s abuse crisis exploded on to the international stage in 2002 when the Boston Globe newspaper revealed that priests had sexually abused children for decades and church leaders had covered it up.

Patterns of widespread abuse of children were later reported across the US and Europe, in Chile and Australia, undercutting the moral authority of the 1.3 billion-member church and taking a toll on its membership.

An independent commission in France concluded in 2021 that 216,000 children – mostly boys – had been sexually abused by clergy since 1950.

In Germany, a study found 3,677 cases of abuse between 1946 and 2014, while in Ireland more than 14,500 people received compensation though a government scheme for those abused at juvenile facilities run by the Catholic church.

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