After years of outcry at sexual abuse by church staff and lay people, the Spanish government has finally taken action to expose the reality of the problem.
More than 200,000 minors may have been sexually abused by clerics in Spain, according to an estimate published on Friday by an independent commission of enquiry into child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
The report does not give precise figures, but contains a survey of more than 8,000 people which estimates that 0.6% of Spain’s adult population of nearly 39 million may have been sexually assaulted by clerics when they were minors.
A slightly smaller number of Spaniards (0.53%) told the surveyors they had been sexually assaulted as minors by lay people working in religious institutions.
These estimates are contained in a report submitted to the Spanish Congress of Deputies on Friday by the Ombudsman, Ángel Gabilondo, following the work of the independent commission – the first in Spain created to assess the extent of paedophilic crime in the Catholic Church.
The report is critical of the attitude of the Catholic Church, deploring its “insufficient” response to cases of child abuse within its institutions.
Among the measures proposed in the report is the creation by the state of a fund to pay reparations to victims.
Mr Gabilondo told a press conference that the cases mainly concerned the period “from 1970 to the present day”.
Unlike France, Germany, Ireland and the US, Spain, a country with a strong Catholic tradition, has never before ordered an independent investigation into the scourge of clerical abuse, even when the reality of it became a matter of public outrage.
Spanish MPs sought to remedy this situation in March 2022 by setting up a commission of experts to “shed light” on the “appalling personal acts committed against defenceless children” within the Spanish Church.
They entrusted the Ombudsman with the leadership of this commission, giving it the objective of determining “responsibility” in cases of sexual violence, offering “reparation” to victims and preventing new cases.
To carry out its work, the commission relied on experts in law and victim assistance, as well as on the testimony of the victims themselves.
Shortly before the report was presented, the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church announced that it will hold an extraordinary plenary assembly this coming Monday, at which the bishops will debate the report.
The church has refused any in-depth investigation for years, and did not want to take part in the commission’s work. However, it agreed to provide the commission in March with information on child abuse cases collected by the dioceses.
Faced with growing political pressure and accusations of obstruction, it commissioned its own external audit in February 2022, entrusted to the law firm Cremades & Calvo Sotelo. A summary of the audit’s findings is expected in November.
The church, which claims in its defence to have put in place protocols for dealing with sexual violence, as well as “child protection” offices within the dioceses, acknowledged in June that it had received testimony from 927 victims.
However, this figure was well below the 2,206 victims recorded by the Spanish daily El País, which created its own database in 2018. The earliest cases recorded date back to 1927.
The Madrid newspaper also counted 1,036 individual clerics accused of sexually assaulting minors.
“According to experts, this is just the tip of the iceberg”, wrote El País on Friday.
By way of comparison, an independent commission has counted 216,000 child victims since 1950 in France. In Germany, a study identified 3,677 cases between 1946 and 2014, and in Ireland more than 14,500 people have received financial compensation through a mechanism set up by the government.
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