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RC bishops in Spain apologise for clerical sex abuse but dispute number of victims

03 November 2023

Cardinal queries media interpretation of data from commission report

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Cardinal Juan José Omella, during a press conference in Madrid on Tuesday

Cardinal Juan José Omella, during a press conference in Madrid on Tuesday

ROMAN CATHOLIC bishops in Spain have indicated, in the wake of a critical parliamentary report, their wish to make reparation for clerical sex abuse, but reject “media extrapolations” about the high number of victims.

“We express pain for the damage caused and reiterate our plea for forgiveness — we also wish to work together towards a comprehensive reparation for victims,” the Bishops’ Conference said on Tuesday.

“While abuses committed in the Church are a cause of pain, the extrapolations made from data in this report also surprise us. They do not correspond to the truth or properly represent those priests and religious who loyally dedicate their lives to serving the Kingdom.”

The Bishops were reacting to the 777-page report by a commission under Spain’s human-rights ombudsman, Ángel Gabilondo, set up in March 2022 by the Cortes Generales: Spain’s two legislative chambers.

They said they had begun considering the report’s testimonies and findings, but that the problem of abuse also “extended beyond the Church” and should be addressed by “all public and private institutions”.

“Failing to take account of the magnitude of the problem and its largely extra-ecclesial dimension will mean ignoring its causes,” the statement says. “Focusing exclusively on reparation for Church victims, moreover, would discriminate against other victims.”

The report refers to evidence that more than one tenth of Spaniards suffered abuse before the age of 18, 1.13 per cent suffering at the hands of church staff in RC parishes, schools, and camps; and 0.6 per cent directly from the clergy.

It says that abuse cases have decreased in recent years, but that victims have been “rarely helped” by the Church, which should “significantly contribute” to a future state compensation fund.

“The seriousness of the phenomenon derives not only from the intensity of victim suffering, but also from the number of people affected, and from the betrayal of trust placed in an institution with undeniable power and moral authority,” the report says.

Spanish newspaper reports said that the report’s data, when extrapolated across the current population of 47 million, implied a figure of 200,000 direct victims of clerical abusers, and 400,000 who had suffered on church premises.

This was rejected as “false and unfounded”, however, by the President of the Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Juan Omella, who said on Tuesday that the report had not attempted an overall victim tally, and that the media claim would effectively incriminate all RC clergy in “the dynamic of abuse”.

The Bishops’ Conference said that church leaders were awaiting the results of their own abuse survey, commissioned from a Madrid law firm in February 2022, and that the Gabilondo report’s recommendations generally converged with “reparation, training, and prevention” procedures already adopted by the Spanish Church.

Vatican procedures for tackling abuse, updated in the 2019 Apostolic Letter (motu proprio) Vos Estis Lux Mundi, require Bishops’ Conference guidelines and specialist anti-abuse centres, in co-operation with Vatican dicasteries, and were reissued online in June 2022.

The Spanish report follows the commissioning of investigations into clerical abuse by Bishops’ Conferences in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain, while RC bishops in Poland and Lithuania have indicated that they may also request investigations.

Although 53.7 per cent of Spanish citizens still identify as Catholics, according to 2023 data, vocations and mass attendance have fallen sharply across the Church’s 70 dioceses and 23,000 parishes, while more than half of all 18- to 34-year-olds currently declare themselves non-religious.

Church leaders have clashed repeatedly with the Socialist-led government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez over laws liberalising abortion, euthanasia, and gender recognition, as well as over measures to curb religious education and tax exemptions on church donations.

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