President of Spanish Episcopal Conference rejects report on pedophilia: ‘The figures extrapolated by some media outlets are lies’

Cardinal Omella took 24 hours to react to the report that was commissioned by Spain’s ombudsman. He dismissed the study that estimates that 1.13% of the country’s population — approximately 440,000 people — have suffered childhood sexual abuse in religious environments

Abusos Iglesia Católica
Cardinal Juan José Omella, president of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, during a meeting at the institution’s headquarters in January 2023.Alejandro Martínez Vélez / Europa Press

Cardinal Juan José Omella — president of the Episcopal Conference of Spain and archbishop of Barcelona — has rejected the conclusions of one of the pillars of the recently-released report on pedophilia in the Catholic Church of Spain.

The report — commissioned by Ombudsman Ángel Gabilondo — was presented to Spain’s Congress on Friday, October 27. It entailed a demographic survey of more than 8,000 adult Spaniards. Based on the results of said survey, it is estimated that 1.13% of Spain’s adult population — more than 440,000 people between the ages of 18 and 90 — have suffered abuse in religious environments in Spain. Approximately 233,000 of these individuals would have experienced said abuse at the hands of a priest or another religious figure.

This past Saturday morning, on his X account, Cardinal Omella declared that “the figures extrapolated by some media outlets are lies and are intended to deceive.” Quoting the Catechism, he also added: “This report [has ignored] the fact that ‘the Church is both holy and always in need of purification... all members of the Church — including its ministers — must recognize themselves as sinners. In all, the tares of sin are still mixed with the good seed of the Gospel until the end of time. The Church brings together sinners already reached by the salvation of Christ, but still in the process of sanctification.’”

The survey was carried out by the consulting firm GAD3, which questioned more than 8,000 people residing in Spain, between the ages of 18 and 90-years-old. The results indicate that 11.7% of the Spanish population suffered sexual abuse in childhood, 1.13% in the religious sphere. During the presentation of the report in Congress, the ombudsman avoided making the calculation in round numbers — something that is not included in the report, either. However, according to the calculations done by EL PAÍS, that 1.13% of the 38.9 million adults registered in Spain in 2022 translates into the estimate of 440,000 people who suffered sexual abuse.

Spain has gone from having no officially-recognized cases of pedophilia within the Catholic Church to being the country with the highest number of victims in the world. France — which also carried out an investigation similar to the one led by Spain’s ombudsman — estimated the total number of living victims at 330,000 in 2021. This study was commissioned by the Catholic Church of France: the results were ultimately accepted by both the country’s Episcopal Conference and Pope Francis.

Omella’s statement breaks a 24-hour-long silence from the Spanish bishops since the ombudsman’s report was made public. As a symptom of the split within the Catholic Church of Spain — between the sector that wants to admit to the abuse and the other that tries to deny it — the cardinal’s words also clashed with a statement released by the Spanish Conference of the Religious. The latter group valued the work of the ombudsman and vowed to study the proposals included in the document. The president of the bishops, however, more vaguely wrote that “we will not tire of asking for forgiveness from the victims and working for their healing.”

Still, there have been outliers. The Diocese of Vittoria apologized to the victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church on social media, affirming that the “the main thing [to do] is to accompany them and work for justice.”

Given the presentation of Gabilondo’s report, the Spanish Episcopal Conference has convened an extraordinary plenary assembly for Monday, October 30. A call with such little notice is absolutely unprecedented in the Church. The session will also discuss the response to the delay of the investigation of abuses that the bishops commissioned in early 2022 from the Cremades & Calvo-Sotelo law firm. This issue has generated enormous tension and unrest in recent months — even more so when Gabilondo’s report finally saw the light of day. In fact, the Episcopal Conference gave the firm a 10-day ultimatum on October 10 to hand over its work — something it has not complied with. It is still unknown what the bishops’ response will be.

“Not all the bishops have collaborated… some have scolded us”

The ombudsman’s report noted the difficulty of obtaining concrete numbers of Spaniards who were victims of pedophilia within the Church. For this reason, the large survey was commissioned. The ombudsman’s team conducted interviews with nearly 500 victims, revealing “the devastating impact that [sexual] abuse has had.”

“There are people who have committed suicide because of these [crimes]. There are people who have never put their lives back together,” Gabilondo declared, during his press conference in the Congress of Deputies.

The report also relied on information provided by EL PAÍS, which currently has 1,036 accused perpetrators and 2,206 victims in the only existing database. The ombudsman also requested data from religious orders and dioceses, although collaboration varied widely, with several leaders in the Church continuing to hide information. Gabilondo has openly criticized this behavior: “Not all bishops have collaborated… some bishops have scolded us.”

The Church has not provided names and details related to each case, which has made it impossible to cross-reference the data with the other available sources to obtain a single conclusive figure. In total, orders and dioceses have reported a total of 1,430 victims (921 from orders and 509 from dioceses). However, this figure doesn’t coincide with the overall figure provided by the Episcopal Conference, which has admitted to 927 victims.

Both in his report and in his press conference, the ombudsman’s criticism of the Church has been very severe. “For many years, the concealment of abuses and abusers has prevailed,” with behaviors “such as transferring abusers to other parishes or educational centers, or even to other countries,” Gabilondo lamented. He also pointed out issues with the canonical procedures, which “have shown important deficits in the rights of the victims, since — until now — they are not part of the canonical criminal process. Their voices don’t have the place they need and deserve.” In Church processes, victims don’t have access to their files, or even to the sentences supposedly applied to perpetrators. “The pure application of canonical law has not infrequently led to loneliness, silencing, secrecy and defenselessness,” Ombudsman Gabilondo concluded.

Precisely, the majority of the victims who have come to report their cases to Omella’s archdiocese — that of Barcelona — have expressed their disappointment and discontent. “I left there crying,” said Mercedes P. A., 70, who went to report abuse that took place in her childhood, at a Catholic school in the municipality of L’Hospitalet, part of the Barcelona Metropolitan Area. The criticisms made by the victims — which the archbishopric rejects — are numerous. They don’t believe that a proper investigation has taken place and they claim that they have barely been informed about what has been discovered. And, when the accused is a lay person, the answer provided by the bishops is that said case cannot be investigated, because they don’t have jurisdiction.

In most cases, the victims don’t perceive that the damage that has been done to them has been adequately recognized. They don’t feel that the religious authorities believe them.

On top of that, a strictly legal vision prevails, because — if the accused has died, as is common in most cases — no canonical process takes place. The Church has also implied that it cannot conclude whether what the victims are saying is true or not.

Many victims feel tension and coldness when talking about monetary compensation — something that they claim isn’t offered to them. Instead, they have had to ask for it.

Finally, the vast majority of victims regret that the dioceses didn’t make the cases public once they became known, or apologize publicly after the report was released. The files have simply been put in the Church archive and remain as hidden as before.

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