The Spanish Church’s stubborn response to sexual abuse allegations, an exception in the Catholic world

Expressing shame, France’s bishops acknowledged an estimated 330,000 victims and quickly decided to sell real estate assets for compensation

Sexual abuse in the catholic church
Cardinal Juan José Omella, president of Spain's Episcopal Conference, during a press conference in Madrid; October 31, 2023.Andrea Comas

EL PAÍS launched an investigation in 2018 into pedophilia in Spain’s Roman Catholic Church and has an updated database with all reported cases. To report a new case in Spain, write to us at: abusos@elpais.es. For new cases in Latin America, the email address is: abusosamerica@elpais.es.


The response of the Spanish clerical leadership to a report on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church by Spain’s ombudsman is singular in the Roman Catholic world. The ecclesiastical hierarchy has refused to collaborate and denied investigators access to their archives. They even called the extrapolated number of victims (440,000) in the report “a lie.” France’s response is a study in contrasts. The country’s conference of bishops commissioned their own study in 2021 and estimated 330,000 victims through data extrapolation. Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, the president of the conference of bishops, acknowledged the staggering magnitude of the issue, which surpassed initial expectations, and expressed a profound “shame.” During their assembly to address the report, they announced that the Church would sell real estate assets to create a fund for compensating the victims. In a public audience soon after, Pope Francis did not question the report, and said it was “a time for all of us to feel shame.” He did not address the Spanish report during his papal audience on November 1. However, it’s noteworthy that this time the report was issued by a public institution and not as the outcome of an internal Church investigation.

Criticism of the French report’s findings primarily stemmed from sources external to the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Various Catholic groups and members of the French Catholic Academy, in particular, expressed skepticism about the study’s findings. Similar reservations about the report’s methodology were voiced by the episcopacy of other countries, such as Italy and Spain. The prospect of victim numbers akin to those in the French report became a cause for concern in Spain, where the bishops consistently stated their reluctance to conduct a similar study. The law firm they hired to perform an audit in March 2022 said this type of investigation was beyond their scope. Nevertheless, now there is an ombudsman’s report with estimated victim numbers significantly higher than those in France.

The Spanish bishops seemed more interested in Portugal’s approach. In February, an independent commission established by the Portuguese Church presented a report based on 512 interviews, instead of using surveys like in France and Spain. Pedro Strecht, the commission’s president, emphasized that the 4,815 victims in their report was a conservative estimate. The Spanish bishops seemed willing to acknowledge a similar conservative figure. The Spanish Episcopal Conference (CEE) now acknowledges more cases than in Portugal, having stopped denying the issue in 2021. On October 28, CEE President Cardinal Juan José Omella confirmed their awareness of 1,125 cases, which is inconsistent with previously released data. Duplicates may exist in these numbers, but the CEE has previously reported 728 accused clergy; the dioceses report 339; and the religious orders report 635. The EL PAÍS database, the only comprehensive and up-to-date record, currently shows 1,303 accused clergy and 2,495 victims.

In many aspects, the Spanish Church differs in its approach to sexual abuse by clergy and stands out as the least transparent. Alongside Poland, it was one of the last large Catholic countries to initiate a comprehensive investigation. Small amounts of compensation are grudgingly doled out, with no public disclosure of the cases. Investigators are not allowed access to their archives. Most importantly, the investigations conducted in other countries by the Church or by public authorities have never been questioned by the ecclesiastical hierarchy there. The facts have always been acknowledged, and the Church has apologized, asking for forgiveness.

In 2002, the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church ignited in the United States following an investigation by the Boston Globe. The American bishops responded with a zero-tolerance policy and commissioned an investigation by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (part of the City University of New York). To support the study, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops required every diocese to submit all their information to investigators, and also required them to make their files publicly available. The dioceses complied and provided complete lists with the names of implicated Catholic clergy. The study reported that 4,392 priests (4% of the U.S. clergy) had been accused of abuse by 10,667 victims. In Spain, the Catholic Church restricts access to its archives, and there has been little transparency regarding the details of known cases from both dioceses and religious orders. In the United States, the dioceses paid substantial amounts of compensation, which led to bankruptcy in some cases. In Spain, only seven dioceses admitted to the ombudsman that they had provided compensation, with the highest amount being €47,000 ($49,500).

The response of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands also differed from the Spanish bishops when the results of a pedophilia survey of 34,267 people were published in 2011. The report found that 1.7% had suffered abuse in religious settings. “We deeply apologize for the abuses and are truly shocked by the numbers,” said the spokesman for the Dutch episcopate. The Church offered compensation of €5,000-€100,000 ($5,300-$105,000) depending on the seriousness of the abuse.

In Germany, bishops issued a forceful apology in 2018, as their report documented 3,677 cases of abuse committed by 1,670 clerics over a 70-year period. A survey of 2,437 individuals also revealed that 3.1% experienced abuse in religious settings. “Abuses within the church have been overlooked, denied and concealed for far too long,” said Reinhard Marx, the president of the German conference of bishops. The investigators confirmed that they had unrestricted access to Church archives and that the bishops did not oversee the study in any way. In Spain, the Cremades & Calvo-Sotelo law firm commissioned by the Church to conduct an abuse audit stated that the audit contract did not permit access to the archives and there was no commitment to publicly release the report.

Last month, the diocese of Aachen (Germany) became the first in the country to publicly release a list of 53 deceased abusive priests. “We wholeheartedly support and encourage those who have been abused to come forward and speak out about these crimes… We will hold everyone accountable, regardless of their position or status, throughout their lifetime,” said Bishop Helmut Dieser, who serves as the abuse commissioner for the German conference of bishops.

From left, César García Magán, Juan José Omella and Josetxo Vera during a press conference in Madrid; October 31, 2023.
From left, César García Magán, Juan José Omella and Josetxo Vera during a press conference in Madrid; October 31, 2023.Andrea Comas

Following a flood of complaints in 2010, a truth commission was established in Belgium by the Catholic Church. The commission identified 475 allegations of abuse. Similar to the situation in Spain, the Belgian bishops did not offer an apology and argued that abuses also occur in other parts of society. In response, Belgium’s Parliament formed a commission for clergy to come forward and admit their responsibility. The commission’s report led to the creation of an arbitration court to ensure the Church compensates victims adequately.

In 2019, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Austria (COCA) presented the results of a pedophilia investigation commission launched nine years prior. The bishops reviewed 2,140 cases and decided to cover the cost of therapy for 1,432 victims. COCA President Cardinal Christoph Schönborn publicly asked for forgiveness in a 2016 session of the Austrian Parliament.

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