Listen to this story:
At a press conference in Rome following their meeting with Pope Francis, the Spanish bishops said that a national newspaper that collected 251 allegations of sexual abuse involving the Catholic Church did a “service.”
“Sometimes we have not communicated well,” said Cardinal Juan Jose Omella, Archbishop of Barcelona and president of the Spanish bishops, on Friday. “El Pais has done a service, we received it and people [at diocesan level] have taken advantage of it, and we are grateful.”
“We open the way to approach the victims with dignity and with respect always to them, who have suffered. We have to look at the victims, look to the future and be proactive, to solve [the crisis] and get closer [to survivors],” Omella said.
He also said that he hopes to bring to light the abuses perpetrated by members of the Spanish clergy and by religious and lay people in Church-related settings, from parishes to schools, but said that “for the moment” the bishops have no plans to summon an independent commission, as was the case with the Church in France and as Portugal announced in December.
“Faced with the issue of abuse we all feel the great pain” caused by these crimes, both for the victims and to society at large. However, he argued, each diocese has established a commission to collect allegations, accompany those “who feel hurt” and to “prevent that in the future, such things can happen again.”
Omella, who led the ad limina visit of the second group of Spanish bishops to the Vatican, explained that the report by El Pais, hand-delivered to Pope Francis during his trip to Greece and Cyprus last December, has been sent to all the dioceses of the country and also to the religious orders.
“All the dioceses are responding little by little. They have replied to El País asking them to send data because in some cases there is no data,” Omella said. (“If) there has been an accusation of a priest or a religious, say who it is and we will investigate.”
According to the newspaper, the investigation presented to the pope is “unprecedented” for the church in Spain, as it includes allegations made against 251 members of the clergy and some lay people from religious institutions of sexual abuse against minors. The investigation was opened in Oct. 2018.
The inquiries will have to branch out according to the competent ecclesiastical entity, since they affect 31 religious orders and 31 dioceses.
Several unnamed sources consulted by Spanish news outlets have contended that because victims and survivors went to the newspaper but not the church, any timely response to the accusations was virtually impossible. For instance, the Catholic weekly Vida Nueva spoke of a lack of “fair play,” quoting a source arguing that when El Pais did reach out to church authorities, they ignored requests to be bridges between the institution and those making the allegations.
This might explain why the bishops’ conference detached itself from the investigation, saying that though they encourage the reporting by victims of clerical sexual abuse and welcome initiatives that seek to end the problem, “greater rigor” would have been desirable from El Pais, one of Spain’s major newspapers.
“It would be desirable that the accusations contained in the aforementioned report have greater rigor, since its content, very disparate in nature, makes it difficult to draw conclusions that could serve a possible investigation. Especially when the names of the accused are missing, the years in which the abuses occurred or refers to deceased persons,” the conference said in a statement following the newspaper’s publication of a summary of findings.
The paper has not published in full its findings from a three-year investigation, but they gave a 385-page dossier to Pope Francis. The number of victims is at least 1,237 but could rise into the thousands. The oldest case dates back to 1942 and the most recent to 2018.
“In all the dioceses we are acting with the utmost prudence, something that the Holy Father has ratified. Prudence, El País has not been prudent. It is not prudent to denounce without giving data,” said Cardinal of Valencia, Antonio Cañizares, parting from the apparent harmony that Omella was trying to demonstrate about the attitude of the church in the face of abuse after meeting for more than two and a half hours with Pope Francis.
Omella confirmed that the issue of sexual abuse and the investigation by El Pais was discussed with the pope as well as with officials at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“At the level of a bishops’ conference, there is a service meant to help smaller dioceses who do not have staff who can help” investigate the allegations, the cardinal said. But “we felt a more humane and close approach would be that each diocese have its own office and the Holy See agreed.”
Traveling to Madrid from every corner of Spain to make an allegation at the headquarters of the bishops’ conference, Omella argued, would be complicated. Addressing the issues locally, on the other hand, would make it easier to carry out said investigation and accompany the survivors.
“Portugal does what it thinks is convenient, like France, Germany or Italy… we are in contact with the Holy See with its protocols and they have agreed. If there is any difficulty, we will see it as we go along,” he said.
“In all the dioceses we are acting with the utmost prudence, something that the Holy Father has ratified,” said Cañizares.
The prelates met with Francis following a tradition of bishops’ conferences visiting the pope and the different offices of the Roman curia every five years. Due to the pandemic, many of these visits have been postponed. In the case of the Spanish bishops, they were missing two prelates, who had to stay behind after testing positive for COVID-19.