How a Spanish Newspaper Tackled the Taboo of Church Abuse

Five years ago, Soledad Gallego-Diaz challenged Spain’s last great taboo: sexual abuse inside the Roman Catholic Church.

The newly appointed editor of the left-leaning daily El Pais launched an investigation into allegations of abuse by clergy and lay people against children.

Unlike in the United States, Ireland and France, the Spanish Church had not sought to address this issue.

Echoing The Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation of child abuse in the Catholic Church, El Pais’ probe sought justice for survivors of abuse.

“I realized that the church was not going to do anything, unlike in the U.S. and Ireland. It had no intention to do anything. It was going to carry on covering up those cases that it knew about. It was the moment to find out the truth,” Gallego told VOA.

Five years after the paper launched its investigation, Spain’s ombudsman published a report estimating that more than 200,000 children suffered sexual abuse from some members of Spain’s Catholic clergy. 

The 700-page report, published October 27, is the first national independent report on this issue. 

Gallego said she believed the government ordered the ombudsman’s report because of the “enormous” public reaction to the paper’s investigation.

Inigo Dominguez, one of two journalists who worked on the investigation from the start, said no other media were covering this issue when El Pais started.

“No other media decided to investigate. It was a deliberate decision. So, El Pais was very alone,” he told VOA.

Their work started shortly after the release of the movie “Spotlight,” about The Boston Globe investigation. 

As the first step in the investigation, El Pais published an email for people to contact the newspaper in confidence. The inbox soon was flooded with people who wanted to tell their stories of abuse. 

Personally, the work has been very tough for the journalists involved, Dominguez said.

“Psychologically, to listen to all these terrible stories, it has put you in contact with human evil. These people have never had anyone to listen to them,” he said.

“When they speak to a journalist, you realize that it is their last hope. You realize that you cannot fail, because it is their last hope.”

But their reporting has gone some way to achieving justice. 

Angel Gabilondo, the Spanish ombudsman, spoke of the “devastating impact” on victims, and criticized the church for its inaction and attempts to cover or deny the abuse.

“What has happened has been possible because of that silence,” he told a press conference.

The ombudsman report is the result of interviews with 8,000 members of the public.

It found that 0.6% of the country’s adult population of roughly 39 million people said they had suffered sexual abuse as children by members of the clergy.

That percentage rose to 1.13% when it included abuse by lay people, making the potential number of victims about 400,000. 

The Spanish Bishop’s Conference apologized to survivors of sexual abuse by priests but questioned the accuracy of the survey that suggested such abuse was far more widespread than previous smaller investigations have found, Reuters reported.

The church’s ruling body expressed its “pain for the damage caused by some church members with the sex abuses and repeated their request to the victims for forgiveness.”

Francisco Garcia, Episcopal conference secretary general, said the church would contribute to a compensation fund but it would have to involve general educational institutions, sports associations and other organizations because abuse happened there too, and not just in the church.

Gallego, who was editor of El Pais from 2018 to 2020, said she has mixed feelings about the ombudsman report. 

“On one hand, it was a relief that a state body, with all the resources at its disposal which are far superior to a newspaper, was uniting all the data and analyzing them. On the other, unhappiness that even the ombudsman was unable to get most bishops to answer his questions. The church hierarchy continues to believe that no one can investigate it,” Gallego told VOA. 

Gallego said the paper’s investigation had revealed more than 2,000 victims and over 1,000 alleged abusers.

The number of reporters increased on the team in the early years of the investigation but has fluctuated throughout.

And the paper is still investigating under current editor Pepa Bueno. 

“The church tried to control the media. I wanted to give a voice to the victims,” she said.

“I hope that Pope Francis, who has pledged to repair the damage, will ensure those priests who have been investigated do not have any more contact with children and are dealt with through the courts.”

Despite falling attendance and the Catholic Church’s influence waning in society, at least 60% of Spaniards describe themselves as Catholic, according to a 2021 survey.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the ombudsman’s findings were a “milestone” in the country’s democracy.

“We are a better country because a reality that everyone knew about for many years but nobody talked about has been made known,” he said.

Dominguez of El Pais said trying to raise the issue of sexual abuse presented journalistic problems.

“These stories are hard to publish because they are often just one person’s word against another,” he said.

The El Pais investigation was recognized with an Association of Investigative Journalists award this year. 

The jury that presented the award said the paper had formed “the first and only database of this type of cases in the Spanish Catholic Church.” 

“The work of El Pais has also served to give voice to the victims, who have found a channel to bring out and share their suffering. This work represents, therefore, a clear exercise of journalistic responsibility,” the jury said. 

Antonio Rubio, president of the Association of Investigative Journalists, told VOA, “It is a work which tries to change something which is the basis of objective investigative journalism.”    

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