The Spanish newspaper El Pais claims to have found 251 new cases of clergy sex abuse and to have instigated a Vatican investigation of sex abuse in the country.
On December 19th, it reported that one of its journalists gave a 385-page dossier to Pope Francis’s assistant during the pontiff’s trip to Cyprus in early December. A week later, the newspaper sent the report to the Spanish Episcopal Conference. The paper reports that Pope Francis delivered the dossier to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and that Juan José Omella, Archbishop of Barcelona and president of the Episcopal Conference, handed his copy over to the church court in Barcelona to start investigating the accusations.
Each case reports on a priest or religious accused of abusing a minor. The earliest accusation goes back to an incident in 1943 and the most recent allegedly took place in 2018. Seventy-seven percent of the alleged abusers belonged to religious orders and the majority of the abuse is alleged to have occurred in the 1960-80s.
The new allegations stem from a three-year investigation by the media outlet.
El Pais started its investigation of sex abuse in Spain in 2018, searching public records, newspaper archives, and setting up a dedicated email account for the public to send in stories of abuse. It received more than five hundred emails. In April, it published what it called the first database of “recognized” abuse cases in the country. The database includes, for example, accusations published in a memoir and the information from an internal investigation by the Jesuits. The oldest case, brought to public attention through the Jesuit’s internal investigation, dates back to 1927. The accused abuser was expelled from the order. The database registers 364 cases and 956 victims.
Along with cases that had already been brought to light in some fashion, the paper discovered 251 new alleged incidents of sexual abuse of minors. Some of those who came forward were men in their 70s and 80s. One victim told the newspaper that he hadn’t said anything about the abuse to his alleged abuser’s superior at the time of the abuse because the superior had also nearly abused him, though the superior stopped when he seemed to realize what he was doing.
The dossier given to the Vatican and the Spanish bishop’s conference does not include information that would identify the alleged victims, though it does state the institutions where the abuse allegedly took place and the names of religious superiors. It also includes an annex of high-ranking church officials who allegedly covered up the abuse. The newspaper stated that it has offered to help the Vatican get in contact with the alleged victims.
A press release by the Spanish Episcopal Conference on December 20th stated that all efforts to end “sexual abuse in the church and in society are, in principle, good.”
It also stated, “It would be desirable that the accusations gathered in the report were more rigorous, as its very disparate content makes it difficult to extract conclusions that can serve for a possible investigation.”
El Pais reported that it had contacted the religious communities named in the report and that most had pledged to investigate the allegations, although one community, according to the newspaper, stated that it would simply turn the reports over to the civil prosecutor from where it would be archived as too old to prosecute.
The paper also reported some pushback to the allegations. When one alleged case was divulged to a representative of the religious order, he replied, “We’re not going to investigate, I have never heard anyone speak ill of this person. The subject doesn’t interest me. This is dirty.”
The Spanish Bishop’s Conference also requested that the reports be turned over to the individual dioceses.
In 2020, each diocese opened an office to receive abuse allegations and respond to victims in accordance with Pope Francis’ motu propio, Vos Estis Lux Mundo.
Unlike the recent French report on abuse in the church commissioned by the French bishops, the Spanish report does not seem to have caused much of a stir inside or outside of the Spanish church.
Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.