Bishops in Spain ask lawyers to audit their sex abuse record

A Madrid-based law firm will conduct a year-long inquiry into past and present sexual abuse committed by Spain’s Roman Catholic clergy, members of religious orders, teachers and others associated with the church, the law firm and the head of the country’s bishops’ conference said Tuesday.

The public announcement marked a departure from the previous position of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, which for years rejected the idea of taking a comprehensive approach to investigating sex abuse. Some abuse survivors met the news with skepticism.

Cardinal Juan José Omella, the conference’s president, said the goal of the inquiry by law firm Cremades & Calvo Sotelo “is the help and reparation of the victims, establishing new and additional channels to collaborate and denounce in addition to those existing in over 40 offices established by the Church.”

The inquiry is intended to cover all abuse and is not limited to investigating only cases in a certain time period, according to Javier Cremades, the law firm’s founder.

Cremades said, as a faithful Catholic himself, he was both overwhelmed by the task and “convinced that the Church must go to the end, get to the bottom, investigate, beg for pardon, if it’s needed, and rectify everything that is necessary.”

He said his firm would act pro-bono and only seek for the Episcopal Conference to pay logistical costs or the fees of external advisors.

Although some bishops and religious orders had said they were open to an inquest, the Spanish Episcopal Conference previously rejected a comprehensive investigation, instead encouraging victims to report their allegations to diocesan offices.

Asked by The Associated Press about the change in approach, Omella said that the audit was the result of long reflection and internal debate: “It’s not easy to take a quick decision.”

Cremades and Omella presented the law firm’s investigation as an external audit. Cremades said he wants to coordinate with Spanish authorities, who are considering an investigation of their own.

Spanish lawmakers are expected to vote in March on the terms of a parliamentary investigation into the depths of the sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy. The Spanish government has proposed having the country’s ombudsman lead that inquiry.

“This is not an alternative, but probably a complement to what they have to do, but in a professional, organized, certified way, so that no one can doubt that it could be a manipulation by the Church, by the powers that be or by any third party,” the lawyer said.

Omella and Cremades deferred questions about whether bishops would testify at the Spanish parliament.

“What’s important is not looking at the past, which is something typically Spanish, but to the future,” the cardinal said. “What we care about is that we are opening a new era: we want to help, accompany and clear up everything.”

Sexual abuse survivors were lukewarm to the announcement, describing the inquiry’s setup as misguided.

Fernando García Salmones, a spokesperson for the Robbed Childhood Association, called the audit a “maneuver to deter attention” because the Church would dictate its terms to the law firm. He also said that Cremades, who has presented himself as a lay member of the ultra-conservative Opus Dei Catholic order, deprived the process of legitimacy.

“Would you task a study about the mafia’s crime to the Corleone family?” said García Salmones, who is among a few victims in Spain who have received compensation from a religious order.

“They only worry that their business keeps flowing,” he added, referring to the many properties and Catholic schools managed by the Catholic Church in Spain. “They don’t care about children or about the abused.”

Pressure on the bishops to act has been growing as more victims have come forward publicly with accounts of abuse. Spanish media have also revealed how the church’s hierarchy dismissed many of the allegations, ignored the victims and obstructed investigations, often moving such priests to new parishes or overseas missionary stints, where they could perpetuate their abuses.

The country’s leading newspaper, El País, has documented more than 600 cases involving twice as many victims, although the real number is believed to be much higher. And the prosecutor’s office recently disclosed that 68 cases of abuse in various religious organizations — not only Catholic — were currently under investigation.

Since assuming the papacy in 2013, Pope Francis has tried to sensitize the church to the problem of clergy abuse and passed laws to hold the hierarchy accountable for covering it up. But progress has varied country by country.

A recent inquiry by a law firm commissioned by the German Catholic Church accused the former pope, Benedict XVI, of botching four cases when he was archbishop of Munich. But recourse to law firms doesn’t always produce the results that victims want: A first report about abuse in the Cologne archdiocese in 2021 was refused by the archbishop, who commissioned another law firm to prepare a second report, which cleared him of wrongdoing.

Only a handful of countries have had government-initiated or parliamentary inquiries into abuse like the one that left-wing lawmakers are promoting in the Spanish parliament.

The most extensive one took place in Australia and found that 7% of Catholic priests were accused of abusing minors between 1980 and 2010. Judge-led investigations in Ireland helped dismantle the Catholic Church’s once-dominant influence in Irish society and politics.

And in France, an independent inquiry estimated last year that some 330,000 children were victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, scout leaders or other Catholic-affiliated lay employees from 1950-2020.

The Italian bishops conference is under pressure to accept some type of an inquest, but there has been no movement so far to approve such an inquiry.

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Nicole Winfield contributed reported from Rome.

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Follow AP’s coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/sexual-abuse-by-clergy

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