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Spain church approves probe into child abuse

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Manuel Barbero, father of one of the alleged victims of a former gymnastics teacher accused of child abuse charges in a Catholic church in northern Spain, talks to the press as he arrives to attend the teacher’s trial in Barcelona on March 25, 2019. AFP

Spain church approves probe into child abuse

Spain’s Catholic Church took its first step on February 22 towards addressing child sex abuse by engaging lawyers to conduct a year-long investigation that will take cues from similar probes in France and Germany.

The move came as political pressure grows for a formal investigation into alleged abuse by the clergy in a country where no such official probe has ever happened.

Cardinal Juan Jose Omella, head of the CEE Episcopal Conference that groups Spain’s leading bishops told reporters the Church wanted “to take responsibility with regard to the victims, the authorities and Spanish society, by creating a new means of cooperation to clarify past events and ensure they don’t happen again”.

Once again, he asked for “forgiveness” on behalf of the Church for causing the victims “so much pain”.

Earlier this month, parliament said it would look into creating an expert panel to examine such abuses. The Church has pledged to cooperate with it.

Asked why the Church had only now decided to open an investigation, despite years of what victims have denounced as stonewalling and denial, Omella said it was “not easy to make a quick decision.

“For us, what’s important is that we’re starting a new stage,” he said.

Until now, the Spanish Church has only recognised 220 cases of abuse since 2001, and has ruled out any “comprehensive investigation” into abuse reports as happened in places like Australia, France, Ireland or the US.

Javier Cremades, head of law firm Cremades & Calvo Sotelo, said its investigation would take about a year and be based on work already done by the dioceses.

But it would also draw on the “positive” aspects of a French probe that exposed 216,000 cases since 1950, and “the methodology used in Germany”.

In Germany, a report published last month by law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl (WSW) found at least 497 children had been abused in Munich-Freising archdiocese between 1945 and 2019.

It also accused former pope Benedict of having knowingly failed to act against four offenders when he was the archbishop there between 1977-1982.

Earlier this month, Benedict XVI denied any cover-up while asking forgiveness for abuses carried out by the clergy against children.

Cremades said his team, which would be advised by Germany’s WSW, would seek to establish “a faithful picture of what happened” by gathering information “first and foremost from those affected – from victims, from their associations and the media”.

With no official statistics on child sex abuse in a country where 55 per cent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, El Pais newspaper began investigating in 2018 and has since received details of 1,246 cases, some dating back to the 1930s.

Cremades, who admitted being a member of the ultra-conservative and influential Opus Dei movement, said that the Church “needs to see this through to the end, to plumb the depths of the problem, to investigate and to ask forgiveness if necessary and put right whatever needs rectifying”.

The law firm has opened a mechanism for receiving complaints with the investigation to be carried out by a team of 18 people, among them several former Supreme Court judges.

Both Cremades and Cardinal Omella said its work would not take precedent over the parliamentary initiative but would “complement” it, with the CEE head insisting there would be “close and efficient collaboration” between the two.

Spain’s parliament is currently studying two options: that of setting up an expert committee to investigate child abuse within the Church that would report to the state ombudsman, and another request for a parliamentary probe into the matter.

The political impetus for an investigation came after high-profile Catalan writer Alejandro Palomas went public for the first time about being abused by a priest at his school when he was just eight years old.

In an unusual step, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez reached out to him on Twitter and met him several days later.

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