The Society of Jesus in Spain has decided to pay financial “compensation” to victims who were sexually abused by members of its order. It is an unprecedented move within the Spanish Catholic Church, which until now has refused to investigate past cases of abuse or pay compensation to victims. The only exception was a deal struck last month by the Marist Brothers in Catalonia, who agreed to pay €400,000 to the families of 25 victims who were abused at Marist schools.
The decision by the Jesuits – the name for members of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic religious order formed in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola – could bring to light years of abuse in cases that have been buried until now – as happened in the United States and other countries. Indeed, several dioceses in the US went bankrupt and were forced to sell their buildings and other properties after paying compensation to abuse victims. When the Boy Scouts of America announced last year that they would compensate victims of abuse, they received 92,000 reports of abuse in just 10 months.
The trauma of abuse cannot be repaired by money, it is for life. Once we have lost our childhood and innocence, we cannot get them backÁngel Plaza, first victim to receive compensation from the Jesuits
The Jesuits, who currently manage 68 schools and educational centers in Spain, are the first and the only order of the Spanish Catholic Church to open a comprehensive internal inquiry on sex abuse allegations. After two years of investigation, the Jesuits presented their report last Thursday, admitting that 81 children and 37 adults had been victims of abuse since 1927.
The Jesuits asked for forgiveness from the victims and launched a plan, called the Safe Environment System, to ensure such abuse never happens again. But they are prepared to go further. “We are working on establishing a reparation system, which we hope to have ready soon, to offer financial compensation,” explains a spokesperson from the order. “There are people whose cases have expired [the statute of limitations has passed] and cannot go to civil court, and in this situation, we look at every case to see how to do this [provide reparations], using a wide range of options in accordance with the compensation of the civil justice system.”
The Jesuits have already provided “economic aid” – a term they prefer to “compensation” – to seven abuse victims. In 2002, as revealed by an EL PAÍS investigation, the order paid €72,000 to Ángel Plaza, who was abused in the 1980s in Salamanca. This is the only case in which the victim set the amount of compensation. According to Plaza, he calculated two million pesetas (€12,020) for the cost of therapy and 10 million pesetas (€60,000) in damages.
According to the Jesuits, the other six cases did not receive a direct transfer of money, but were covered for their therapy expenses. The order admits that it is still finalizing its formula for reparations and deciding how it will manage requests for compensation, given that many cases are likely to have happened a long time ago, making them difficult to verify. The Jesuits also want to help victims “who cannot or do not want to file a legal claim,” calling on these individuals to write to email@example.com.
Ángel Plaza, who was the first victim to receive compensation from the Jesuits, says that money cannot make up for the suffering of victims. “The trauma of abuse cannot be repaired by money, it is for life. Once we have lost our childhood and innocence, we cannot get them back. The ability to have a normal life for a person who has suffered sexual abuse as a child depends on many factors, their environment, their resilience… but we have to accept that it will never be the same life that we would have had if we weren’t abused,” he says. “It is easy to understand this when people have accidents that leave them with physical disabilities, but it is more difficult to understand when the damage is to a person’s personality and psyche. The damage is not the same for everyone because it depends on many circumstances, meaning the compensation should not necessarily be the same.”
The compensation, more than a certain amount of money, must include other elements that help with the victim’s social, work and emotional integrationJuan Cuatrecases, the father of a victim who was abused at an Opus Dei school
With respect to the Jesuits’ internal inquiry, Plaza says “a lot of years have passed since 1927 to think that no one knew anything in the order” and calls on the order to “truly look at their conscience” to understand how such abuse was permitted. “Of course, not all Jesuits are pedophiles, of course, there are some real saints, but the hour of reckoning is here, let them calmly name their predators and see how many saints remain.”
Juan Cuatrecases, the father of a victim who was abused at an Opus Dei school in Spain’s Basque Country, says the decision is a big step forward in the fight against pedophilia in the Catholic Church. He hopes other religious institutions, like Opus Dei and the Spanish Episcopal Conference (CEE), will also break the silence on sexual abuse. The CEE, unlike the Church in Ireland, France and Germany, has refused to carry out an internal investigation into abuse allegations, reveal what happened or provide compensation to the victims. Nor has any other religious order, aside from the Jesuits, agreed to such a move.
With respect to compensation, Cuatrecases says: “A 20-year-old victim is not the same as an 80-year-old one. The first victim has their life ahead of them and will need constant support. From there, their situation will need to be constantly monitored. The compensation, more than a certain amount of money, must include other elements that help with the victim’s social, work and emotional integration.”
According to the internal inquiry, 1% of all Jesuits who entered the order since 1927 in Spain committed abuse – a figure victims’ associations say is “ridiculous.” The report is based on a review of archives, including cases that were uncovered at the time, and on the testimony of victims and witnesses who appeared before the congregation. The Jesuits’ investigation has highlighted how little data there is about abuse in the Spanish Catholic Church. A count by EL PAÍS, based on existing rulings and archived cases, identified 123 cases since 1986, with nearly 400 victims. Most of these cases have come to light in the last two years, when EL PAÍS began investigating the sex abuse allegations in October 2018.
Past compensation cases
In 2007, the Spanish Supreme Court held the archbishopric of Madrid liable in the case of a pedophile priest in the Madrid neighborhood of Aluche and ordered it to pay €30,000 to the victim. With respect to the 70 dioceses in Spain, only Cartagena announced in May 2020 that it would pay compensation to victims of abuse whose cases had passed the statute of limitations. In this instance, the amount of compensation would not be set by the diocese, but rather established in an agreement with the victim. The bishop of Bilbao, Mario Iceta, has said that it is “courageous” of the Spanish Catholic Church to compensate victims from its own funds, but it is not a view shared by all. In France, for instance, bishops agreed to pay fixed compensation to victims, but called on worshippers to help cover the cost with donations.
In February 2020, the Marist Brothers of Catalonia created an independent commission with the Mans Petites Foundation, which was founded by the father of an abuse victim. The commission studied each case and agreed to pay €400,000 to 25 former students who were abused by members of the order in Marist schools in Catalonia. Some of the cases dated back to 1960 and had passed the statute of limitations. A total of 18 teachers and monitors at Marist schools had been accused of committing abuse since the 1960s, according to an investigation by Spanish newspaper El Periódico, but only one – physical education teacher Joaquín Benítez – was sent to prison: last year he was sentenced to 21 years.
Experts say that dioceses have the duty to inform victims that they have the right to ask for financial compensation before the ecclesiastical process begins. But most victims interviewed by EL PAÍS say they were never told this was a possibility.
English version by Melissa Kitson.