Spain’s legislature to launch clerical abuse investigation

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After the bishops’ conference of Spain (CEE) refused to launch an independent commission to look into historic clerical abuse cases, the government gave a green light for Congress to launch its own commission.

The left-wing Spanish government, led by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, has decided to play an active role in the investigation of abuse cases against minors within the Catholic Church. The decision comes days after a request made by the allies of this coalition government, including Unidas Podemos, for Congress to create the body.

Meanwhile, the State Prosecutor’s Office – headed by the former socialist minister Dolores Delgado – has initiated its own procedure. The 17 senior prosecutors of all the autonomous communities of Spain have been asked to forward within 10 days all the complaints and lawsuits that are being processed on sexual assaults and abuse of minors within any religious institution.

The government’s spokeswoman, Isabel Rodríguez, said in a press conference Tuesday that the “Government is on the side of the victims and we want an investigation.”

The Executive “is studying with determination all the possible formulas to do it in the best way and prevent this from happening again,” she said. “We are going to do it and we are going to do it well.”

She also said that they are still considering what the “most appropriate mechanism” is, that allows “to clarify the facts and to help victims with their pain.”

A final vote on the proposal is not expected before Feb. 17. However, local news outlets are widely reporting that the proposal will pass.

Back in 2018 a similar initiative was presented in Congress, but it failed to garner support. At the time, the Socialists argued that it was not up to the Government “to make these types of requirements. If there is news of the possible commission of a crime, it is appropriate to bring it to the attention of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, not produce a report.”

The Spanish bishops have refused to launch the investigation – which has been commissioned by other national bishops’ conferences, such as Portugal, France and Germany – on the grounds that every diocese in the country is already compiling this information. 

Furthermore, some bishops have argued collecting all the data in one report instead of actually investigating allegations, does not help victims. What they propose, instead, is to focus attention and resources to listening and accompanying victims, inviting them to come forward with allegations either to Church or civil authorities. 

The left-wing People’s Party voted against the Commission when the proposal was debated on Tuesday because they wanted to broaden the scope of the study to look into cases of sexual abuse against children than might have occurred in other settings, including public schools.

According to the Center for Decease Control, one in four girls and one in thirteen boys experience child sexual abuse before turning 18, and in 91 percent of the cases, the abuser is known by the child or the family, with an estimated 60 percent of the cases taking place within the family.

The request for a government commission comes after an investigation carried out by El Pais, a left-wing national newspaper aligned with the government. Their report was handed to Pope Francis in December. According to the newspaper, the investigation is “unprecedented” for the Church in Spain. It includes allegations of child sexual abuse made against 251 members of the clergy and some lay people from religious institutions. The investigation was opened in October, 2018.

At least nine dioceses, and most religious orders named in the report, have asked the newspaper for help in contacting the survivors who are willing to make the allegations to authorities.

Sources have told Crux that one of the reasons why the bishops have refused to do a historic investigation is because they are convinced the government, through the newspaper, has targeted them and launching a commission would be “caving in.”

Other prelates, however, argue that they have followed suit with every request made by the Holy See. They claim that during their ad limina visits to Rome – held between December and January – Pope Francis, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Bishops expressed satisfaction with the steps taken to investigate allegations, accompany victims and prevent abuse.

“It is true that the Church in Spain has made mistakes,” a source from within the bishops conference told Crux. “But to go from ‘we didn’t do everything right’ to accusing us of ‘doing absolutely nothing’ is flat out a lie.”

The bishops’ conference hasn’t issued a statement about the proposed commission, and only one bishop – Luis Argüello, secretary general of CEE and auxiliary of Valladolid – has spoken about it.

During an interview with Vatican Media following the ad limina visit, he expressed concerns about the proposal.

“We are also witnessing a use of this situation: A media use, a political use in these last hours and that worries us,” Argüello said. “Not only because it affects the life of the Church and without addressing the problem of abuse in society as a whole. Above all, because it seems to us especially painful that the situation of the victims could be used as a political dispute, in the confrontation of the Parliament or of the Spanish social and political life.”

Cardinal Juan Jose Omella, Archbishop of Barcelona, is greeted by Pope Francis after he received the red three-cornered biretta hat during a consistory inside the St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, June 28, 2017. (Credit: Alessandra Tarantino/AP.)

Spaniard Yago De la Cierva, a layman member of Opus Dei who was part of the consulting team of the Vatican’s 2019 summit on clerical abuse, told Crux that the situation in Spain is particular because it is a newspaper, not the bishops, that has taken the initiative to do what the Holy See demanded at the end of that meeting.

“The Vatican said it should be the bishops who investigate and take lead on this matter, because no one is more interested in guaranteeing safe spaces in ecclesial contexts,” he said. “Hence, the paradox of the situation: A left wing newspaper, and a Socialist-Communist government, are more interested in carrying out an investigation than the bishops’ conference.”

“It is not that the bishops are doing it all wrong. We just don’t know what they are doing,” he added.

This, De la Cierva argued, has left the lay faithful in a “worrying situation of abandonment,” seeing on the one hand the aggressiveness of El Pais, and on the other, no response from the bishops.

“These issues are impossible to avoid in the public square, and the less upfront the bishops are in addressing this social scourge, the worse it is going to be,” he said. 

Furthermore, if they are not responsible for cleaning their own house, then they will have no credibility in addressing the problem in the larger society.

Since each country is different, he said, the regulations of the Holy See are applied differently. But at the end of the summit of presidents of bishops’ conferences in Rome, the Holy See asked the prelates to investigate abuse allegations, to go looking for survivors and make reparations. If the Spanish bishops can guarantee that this happens at the diocesan level, “perhaps there is no need for an investigation at the national level.” 

“But public opinion is not divided by diocese, and it is very difficult for each diocese to do the same thing, with the same spirit, methodology and dedication, as the diocese next door,” De la Cierva said. “For this reason, episcopal conferences around the world have decided to provide a service to the particular dioceses so that there is a systematization.”

Yet he said the Spanish bishops are very jealous of their dioceses, and they doubt the bishops’ conference could do a better job. 

 De la Cierva said he fears this means the Spanish Church could fall by the wayside in tackling abuse in a systematic mannter.

“There is no injustice worse than comparative injustice. It makes no sense to treat an abused person in Madrid worse than one from Huelva or one abused by a Marist. Because neither the faithful nor society accept this difference,” he said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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