ROME – The Catholic bishops of Spain presented their plan on Thursday for an independent commission on the clerical abuse crisis to Pope Francis.
The investigation was announced soon after the Spanish Congress approved a resolution to set up its own independent commission to investigate historical allegations of abuse.
“We want someone to evaluate what we are doing, because maybe we think we are doing very well and it turns out that we are not,” said Cardinal Juan Jose Omella, president of the Spanish bishops’ conference. “That is why we have asked for an external audit, led by the Cremades-Calvo Sotelo
law firm. They estimated that it would take them a year to evaluate what we have done so that we can rectify what we are doing wrong.”
During a 30-minute conversation, the prelate told Crux that he believes it is “important to be humble, recognize the value of what you are doing well, without being proud of simply doing your job, and to recognize the mistakes, always thinking about the good of the people.”
“It is important that the church as an institution recognize when it has done things wrong and ask for forgiveness,” Omella said. “I do not mind asking for forgiveness on behalf of the Spanish church to the victims and their families who have suffered a lot. I ask for forgiveness, I wish it had not happened. But looking to the future, we also have to work so that it does not happen again.”
The Spanish delegation – including Omella, Cardinal Carlos Osoro of Madrid, and Monsignor Luis Argüello – made the trek to Rome to update the Vatican on the situation of the church in Spain at the halfway mark of their three-year mandate to lead the bishops’ conference.
Crux spoke with Omella after the meeting with Francis. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
Crux: How was the meeting with the pope?
Omella: As always the pope was welcoming, open, friendly, and encouraged us on our work. We told him about what the bishops’ conference is doing. We presented to him the pastoral orientations for the next five years and the most important concerns we have: evangelization, the family, youth, the transmission of the faith, and the social ministries, such as immigration – themes that are very sensitive to the pope. And obviously, the issue of the protection of minors, including the commission that we have created to look at the issue nationally. This is on the one hand, a stand-alone issue, but on the other, one of our pastoral priorities.
Any feedback from the pope on what you are doing?
Basically, he said that he thinks that what we are doing is good. With this commission that we have created, we want to imitate the best of what others have done in the United States, in France and Germany, and what Portugal is doing. And we hope to avoid the mistakes that were made, also taking into account the uniqueness of Spain because each country is different.
We had already created diocesan offices to receive allegations of abuse and accompany victims and for reparation. But perhaps it was not enough, because some did not come forth, perhaps because they did not have the trust to do so. So we have set up an external commission to audit what we have done and what remains to be done. And there is also the question of the ombudsman, who has the support of parliament. On our part, we want to collaborate with the victims, to clarify, and to prevent so that it does not happen again.
It is known that the pope has no problem in giving a slap on the wrist when he has a criticism. Any constructive criticism from the pope to what the church in Spain is doing in this matter?
Thank God he did not slap our wrist! On the contrary, he has encouraged us to continue working. He knows Spain well and he knows it is not perfect. But more than anything, he encouraged us to continue working, especially in evangelization, without seeking to return to the nostalgia of the past. Perhaps that could be the reason why we should not only look at the past, but rather look and project towards the future.
A few days ago you met with survivors of clerical sexual abuse. How was that meeting, and on a personal level, what did you learn from meeting with them?
It is not the first time I have met with victims of abuse. But there were 18 of them who came to share their experiences, their pain, and the psychological and spiritual discomfort that the abuses have generated in them. And the truth is that one is shocked to hear the pain of people, especially when it was caused by people so close to us, priests or religious, people consecrated to God who should work for the moral, spiritual, and general good of the person. It hurts.
I remained in that attitude of listening and praying, praying for them and also for the abusers, and so that it does not happen again. And I was very moved by what they shared with me about the pain of their parents who have been witnesses of that suffering. And I called some of the parents of the victims, because when they spoke about it I was shaken, and I told them that, if they felt that I could help, I wanted to talk with them as well.
What do you see as a particularly Spanish aspect of the way you are investigating the abuse issue compared to other countries that have already done so?
I haven’t looked specifically at what others have done, and I don’t like to judge others either. What we want is that in every space we have a service that allows us to be close to the victims. That is why in each diocese we set up offices for listening and receiving complaints and a tribunal. And to help all of these offices to function properly, the bishops’ conference provided a service of assistance and evaluation.
At the same time, we want someone to evaluate what we are doing, because maybe we think we are doing very well and it turns out that we are not. That is why we have asked for an external audit, led by the Cremades-Calvo Sotelo law firm. They estimated that it would take them a year to evaluate what we have done so that we can rectify what we are doing wrong.
I think that it is important to be humble, recognize the value of what you are doing well, without being proud of simply doing your job, and to recognize the mistakes, always thinking about the good of the people. Hence, it is important that the church as an institution recognize when it has done things wrong and ask for forgiveness.
I do not mind asking for forgiveness on behalf of the Spanish church to the victims and their families who have suffered a lot. I ask for forgiveness, I wish it had not happened. But looking to the future, we also have to work so that it does not happen again.
And I hope that it will also help other institutions, society, and the media to take action.
And hopefully it will also help society as a whole to become aware of this evil that exists everywhere. I do not say this as a defense of the church. I believe that the church has to make that conversion and cleansing, working towards the future, but it is also a problem in society, which hopefully can work on it for the good of people who deserve to be respected in their integrity, to live in peace, and with confidence in both ecclesiastical and civil institutions, with the certainty that they can live without the fear of being attacked or assaulted.
As I understand it, in 2018 the Spanish church created the offices for reporting and prevention, as well as diocesan tribunals. In December 2021, El País published a series of articles and delivered a report with more than 250 accusations of abuse to Pope Francis. Was there a failure of communication between what the church did or did not do, or what the church was not really doing?
Probably, and this is a very personal reflection, the communication did not work as it should so that everyone knew what was being done. They thought that people were covering up the reality with a blanket. Maybe we have failed. Sometimes I also wonder if the media helped to spread that communication. And it may also have happened that the victims did not trust us and decided to go directly to the media.
But the important thing is to recognize that things have not gone well, and that there is a turning point where we say, “let’s go after them,” and we are going to work for the sake of the victims in another way. What we put in place we’re maintaining, because we think it’s right, and it follows the protocols of the Holy See, and if we haven’t gotten it quite right in communication, we’ll work on that as well. We will look to the future, both church and media, always for the good of the victims.
Are you worried that the reports being made by the church and the government in parallel give different results?
I believe that they are not parallel, because both the commission and the ombudsman want in some way to contrast the information, to help each other. Because what matters is not who does it better, but to work for the good. And it may happen that some have more confidence to talk to one or the other, and this information can be checked so that it is not repeated or that one does not have more cases but at the same time repeats the other one.
There can be a collaboration between the two institutions, independent of the church, which will not get involved but will collaborate in everything necessary, as long as it is within the legal framework.
One of the questions raised by the victims after their meeting with you is the fact that the owner of the law firm is from Opus Dei. Is the decision to add the former mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena an attempt to give more credibility to the commission, since she is known to be critical of the Catholic Church? [Editor’s note: Carmena won the election in 2015 as leader of a coalition of left-wing and Communist parties.]
I think it is very sincere of the owner of the law firm to say from the outset that he belongs to Opus Dei, but that he does not want to be partisan. I think it is important for him to say who he is, but also that he wants to work independently and freely. Then, obviously, he has to gain people’s trust.
But I also think it is important that the people who are going to advise him come from the United States, Portugal, France, Germany, where they have already done an important job, certainly getting many things right, but also making mistakes. What they have done wrong they bring as experience, to try to avoid making the same mistake. There are many people of great prestige who do not belong to the field, neither to Opus or practicing Christians. This indicates the independence with which they want to work, and we hope they succeed. In Spain, almost everyone who is not an atheist belongs to one movement or another.
Many accuse the church in Spain of having minimized the problem. Do you think the church minimized the issue of abuse?
I think we have to look from where and from what parameters we analyze things, because it is not the same to talk about abuses in the 1990s, the 1940s or the 2020s. Because the social perception is different: Sixty years ago, teachers did not want to denounce, parents did not want their child to have a bad name, even as a victim. We all somehow tried not to make scandals, until we realized that it was necessary to denounce because it is not worthy of the human person to abuse an innocent person.
To judge the past with today’s current parameters is unfair. I give the example of slavery: In Europe it has objectively disappeared, although there are types of modern slavery, but kings, landowners and other had them … but thanks be to God, we have become aware of the value of the human person and slavery has been abolished.
The good thing is that both the church and society have become aware of the problem.
The church has become aware of the problem?
Of course, along with society, because the church has not been sanctified since baptism. We are all moving forward, some a little ahead, others behind, but we are almost at the same pace.
I think we can help each other, be very attentive: God gave us two ears and one mouth, but we tend to use our mouths more than our ears. And maybe El País annoyed us with that report, but I think it has helped us. A fraternal correction bothers us, but it is good for us.
As St. Augustine used to say: I am a bishop for you, but with you I am a believer. That is to say, one has to preach, but also to listen, because God speaks to me through a simple person, a communication outlet, an institution that corrects me. It may annoy me, but it does me good, because it leads to conversion. And if there is no conversion, what is Lent for?
What is it that keeps Omella awake at night?
I am like Pope John XXIII, who at the end of the day used to say: “I put all these problems on you, because the church is yours, and I go to sleep.”
But during the day, I worry about many things, starting with the fact that the message of Jesus is not very present in our lives and in our society. It would seem that money, development, social welfare, seem to occupy us all and in the end, as the Gospel says, we have a heart attack, and the important thing is how we have left things.
The second thing is formation. I believe that today, formation in civic and spiritual values is very important. We have to be able to give reason for our faith and prevent reigning ideologies from leading us down winding roads.
And thirdly, I am very concerned about the social injustice that is poverty and the lack of solidarity, something that Pope Francis insists on a lot. We must not see reality only through the eyes of those who have the most, but also through the eyes of the poor, the least, which is what Jesus also did. We are all children of God and we deserve respect, but in some way we should take greater care of the little ones, as parents do in the family.
Both in Spain and in my country, Argentina, there is a lot of talk about the pope, mostly from people who criticize him without actually reading him. And both countries are demanding a visit from the pope, and it seems that neither is going to get it soon. Why do you think that is?
It is good that the countries want him to visit … And the pope tells us that he would like to do so, but that he has a very clear option for the peripheries. We have to respect that and it is praiseworthy. Every time we ask him, he tells us that he would love to go to Santiago de Compostela, or to participate in the Ignatian year, and I imagine he would love to return to Argentina and encounter so many people he has not seen for years.
But it is lofty of the pope to want to give away his person, to spend himself with the peripheries, who have not received a visit from the pope or that, when receiving a visit from the pope with a good number of international media, have their realities shown to the world. And we should be glad that this is his attitude and leave aside that petty, envious attitude of saying “the pope doesn’t like us or he despises us.”