01 November 2023, The Tablet

Spanish bishops contrite at abuse report but reject victim estimates

“A single case of abuse is intolerable,” said a statement from the bishops, but they rejected commentators’ estimates of 440,000 victims.

Spanish bishops contrite at abuse report but reject victim estimates

Cardinal Juan José Omella, the president of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference, at a press conference on 31 October.
Associated Press / Alamy

A parliamentary report on sexual abuse in the Spanish Church has made severe criticisms of the Spanish bishops.

The Spanish ombudsman Ángel Gabilondo – whose title of Defensor del Pueblo or “People’s Defender” is defined by the Spanish parliament as a “high commissioner for the defence of basic rights” – published his report, “A Necessary Response”, on 27 October.

A commission set up by the Spanish parliament conducted a sample survey of 8,013 people which found that 1.13 per cent were affected by abuse in the Church, with just over half of it perpetrated by clergy or religious. This is a similar proportion to that found in other countries.

The majority of the victims, 64.6 per cent, were male with most abuse taking place in family contexts. The commission also set up a listening unit, which received reports of 487 cases.

It said that the hierarchy had failed to cooperate properly with the commission.

“The response of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference…still reflects an attitude characterised by caution and reticence,” the report said. “Despite an expressed willingness to collaborate, the data were presented in a form that tends to minimise the phenomenon and relegate it to a marginal problem within the institution.”

The report notes that part of the seriousness of the abuse is that it caused “spiritual abuse” and, in the case of adult victims, “abuse of conscience”.

It argues that “there is evidence that clericalism, deeply rooted in the heart of the Catholic Church, the sacralisation of the figure of the priest as a representative of God on earth, the loneliness of many clergy and problems in dealing with sexuality are factors that may have encouraged these sexual abuses, as an expression of an abuse of power over children and adolescents or people in a relation of psychological or spiritual domination.”

Some dioceses challenged the right of the commission to investigate, although the Spanish Conference of Religious thanked the ombudsman for his work.

It said in response to the report: “We ask pardon of all the victims who have suffered sexual abuse within the Church.  We feel deeply identified with their pain and regret if at any time we have not acted correctly.  We recognise that we must make the effort to put ourselves in the place of the victims and learn from them.”

In a response online posted online after the report’s publication, ahead of a meeting of the Spanish bishops’ conference on 30 October, its president Cardinal Juan José Omella disputed the figure of 440,000 abuse cases extrapolated from the percentages by some commentators.

“We shall not tire in asking the victims’ forgiveness and working for their healing,” he added.

Speaking in the Madrid the day after the bishops’ meeting, Cardinal Omella expressed their collective regret and desire to make reparation to victims and introduce effective protections against abuse.

“A single case of abuse is intolerable,” said a statement from the bishops, though they again rejected estimates that put the number of victims in the hundreds of thousands.

“This number does not correspond to the truth nor does it represent the group of priests and religious who work loyally and with dedication of their lives to the service of the Kingdom.”

Bishop Francisco César García Magán, the conference’s general secretary, said it was “unfair and false to extend a shadow of darkness and suspicion to all priests and all consecrated people” when “the vast majority of our priests and religious are working faithfully and selflessly, serving the people of God, both in the parishes and communities, as well as all the people in need in the most remote areas of the country”.

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