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How the Spanish Catholic Church has been hiding abuse cases for decades

The ecclesiastical leadership in the country refuses to provide any data on the incidents that it is aware of, with just three of the 70 dioceses passing on information to the prosecutor

Vaticano acusa al Papa
An activist holds up a sign during the pope’s visit to Dublin earlier this year. EFE

For decades, the Spanish Catholic Church has been keeping quiet on the majority of sexual abuse cases involving minors of which it had knowledge or tried in its ecclesiastical courts. The facts of these incidents were not passed on to the public prosecutor, nor were sentences imposed against pedophile priests made public, apart from a handful of exceptions – most of which were forced.

The problem that most concerns Pope Francis, pedophilia in the Church, is only partially public knowledge in Spain thanks to cases that have been dealt with by the regular courts.

More than 50 dioceses failed to reply to the emails that were sent by EL PAÍS requesting information

According to judicial records, judges have issued 33 rulings against priests over the last 30 years, for the abuse of 80 minors. The sentences have ranged from economic fines to up to 21 years in jail. Some of the sentences included compensation payments to the victims of between €1,200 and €70,000.

Spain has 23,000 parishes and 18,000 clergymen. The judicial sentences for pedophilia affect under 0.2% of the clergy. In half a dozen of the known rulings, the proven facts explain how the victims first reported the abuse to the Church, and, given the lack of a response, decided to turn to the courts.

While Spain’s Criminal Code punishes the abuse of minors with years of jail time, the ecclesiastical courts apply the Canonical Code, which only envisions the suspension of priestly duties during a set amount of time, or, in very serious cases, expulsion from the priesthood.

Neither the Episcopal Conference nor the immense majority of the 70 Spanish dioceses consulted by EL PAÍS have supplied information about the reports of pedophilia that have come to light or been prosecuted in recent decades. Five of the 18 dioceses that did respond to this newspaper claimed that they had no evidence of any cases: Burgos, Santiago, Teruel, Barbastro and Segovia.

Another four admitted to at least one case: Oviedo, Plasencia, Guadix and Vic. The diocese of Sigüenza-Guadalajara explained that it had dealt with one false claim. Bilbao, Madrid and Soria avoided talking about reports received. More than 50 dioceses failed to reply to the emails that were sent by EL PAÍS.

Pope Francis, who has committed to cleaning up the image of the Church with an iron fist policy with regard to pedophilia, has called a conference in February of next year of all of the heads of the Episcopal Conferences the world over, where the issue of abuse of minors will be tackled.

Pope Francisco appears determined to convey to the bishops the need to be implacable with regard to the known cases of sex crimes

The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the ministry from the Holy See that applies canonical law in cases of pedophilia that arrive from all over the world, has published a brief summary of its disciplinary action since 2012.

Every year, between 400 and 500 cases of child abuse are received, although the information supplied by the Congregation does not specify which countries they come from. EL PAÍS asked the Vatican for the number of cases that come from Spain, but did not receive a response. Despite the impenetrability of the Church, Pope Francisco appears determined to convey to the bishops the need to be implacable with regard to the known cases of sex crimes.

The Episcopal Conference in Germany, meanwhile, has investigated the facts and has sent its conclusions to the pope: 3,677 cases of child abuse in the last 70 years. The Spanish ecclesiastical authorities have not requested similar information from its 70 dioceses in order to create a similar report. “We cannot provide information about these issues,” they say. “First out of respect for the victims, and second because we are a collegiate body; that information corresponds to the dioceses, which answer only to the pope.”

Several dioceses, including that of Madrid, told EL PAÍS that they are prepared to work with the Episcopal Conference “with whatever they need.”

The opacity of the Spanish Catholic Church and its lack of cooperation with the justice system suffered a serious blow in March 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI made public his Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, a country that has severely suffered the child abuse scandal in its Church, and approved new rules to deal with the problem. It ordered the Episcopal Conferences to draw up a protocol with preventive measures and clear lines of action in ecclesiastical judicial processes.

Several months after that papal instruction, the Spanish Episcopal Conference drew up its protocols in order to assume the rules imposed from Rome. The protocol states that “if there are rational indications of a criminal offense being committed, the ecclesiastical authority invites or advises the claimant to file a report themselves with the police, the public prosecutor or the courts.”

Only the victims’ discontent with the treatment received by the Church prompted the ecclesiastic processes to be made public

Seven years after that document from the Episcopal Conference, at least three of the 70 dioceses (Sigüenza, Astorga and Burgos) have approved wider protocols in which it is considered to be “essential” that the bishops “notify the specialized services and the prosecutor” of the information they hold.

Since 2010, there have been two cases where dioceses – Ciudad Real and Castellón – have informed the public prosecutor of the complaints of abuse received within the Church. However, this approach is by no means standard across Spain.

The two abuse cases to have caused the most social uproar in recent years – the Romanones case in Granada, and the La Bañeza Seminary case in León – were handled by their respective dioceses with secrecy. Only the victims’ discontent with the treatment received by the Church prompted the ecclesiastic processes to be made public.

In the Romanones case in Granada, the claimant turned to the public prosecutor after losing trust in the ecclesiastical court that had begun investigating the case.

During the trial, the priest’s lawyer called for one of the pieces of evidence to be excluded: the testimony of three priests who were questioned by the Granada diocese ecclesiastical court. The lawyer argued that these statements were protected by “pontifical secrecy,” and that as such a constitutional right was being violated.

The court recognized the complexity of the legal problem raised by the lawyer of the priest in Granada, and accepted excluding the evidence given that none of the sides had made reference to it during the trial. But he made clear that there had been no violation of canonical procedure given that it was Rome – the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith – that had authorized the Bishop of Granada to voluntarily hand over the testimony of the priests. In the end, the Granada High Court acquitted the main defendant.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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