The unknowns of the Ombudsman commission, three months later
The ombudsman, Ángel Gabilondo, last May before presenting the annual reports corresponding to 2020 and 2021 in the plenary session of the Senate.
The ombudsman, Ángel Gabilondo, last May before presenting the annual reports corresponding to 2020 and 2021 in the plenary session of the Senate.Chema Moya (EFE)

Three months have passed since the Congress of Deputies entrusted the Ombudsman with the investigation of pederasty in the Catholic Church and several questions are still open about it: Will the bishops actively collaborate to provide documents and be interviewed to admit, in the If so, your responsibility? How much time will the defender consider necessary to prepare a competent report? And, most importantly, will a sociological study be carried out, as in France, to find out a broad picture of the problem, or will only the number of affected people that the defender manages to count through his channels and the cases published in the media be quantified?

At the moment, the head of the organization, Ángel Gabilondo, has not yet officially specified anything, except that a commission of experts will be formed for it. Nor when will it start working. However, sources in the process already informed this newspaper of its roadmap at the end of May: there will be two work teams (one exclusively to attend to those affected), an office for the victims —outside the official headquarters of the institution to guarantee their privacy—and will enable several contact channels, the main one of which will be an electronic mailbox.

The first unknown looms over the latter: will the victims trust this commission and use those channels to tell their story? In other countries, such as France and Australia, the victim’s account of the abuse they suffered, the cover-up of the crime they suffered and their requests for reparation were the basis on which their investigations were based. Beyond stuffing thousands of pages of reports [más de 2.500 páginas contenía el informe francés, nueve volúmenes, el irlandés y 15 el de Australia], their stories allowed the elaboration of a qualitative analysis of the problem. The first step for this to be repeated in Spain, experts point out, is to promote the commission to reach as many people as possible and offer guarantees that they will be well treated. Gemma Varona, president of the Basque Society of Victimology, professor of Criminal Policy and Victimology at the University of the Basque Country, points out that “there must be advertisements that convey trust” and that “it is essential that [las víctimas] know what is going to happen when they contact the commission, every part of the process.” Confidence, then, is the oxygen for the truth to catch on through these commissions.

Knowing the magnitude of the problem goes beyond attending to and quantifying the maximum number of victims and aggressors, mainly due to the complexities involved for many of them in telling what happened. Likewise, many never did, and defining a radiograph goes through statistical analysis. Experts such as Josep Tamarit, Professor of Criminal Law at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, point out that in order to get to the scale of the problem, it is necessary to use all possible scientific tools and methods, as used by the French commission, which produced a report through a survey where it was estimated that at least 216,000 French people were victims of clerical pedophilia since the middle of the last century.

The opinions of the Spanish associations on Gabilondo’s commission, until now, have differed among themselves. The National Association of Stolen Children (ANIR), chaired by the socialist deputy Juan Cuatrecasas, defends the defender’s initiative, rather than because it is an entity outside the religious institution, “because he is the person who has received the support of practically all political groups in Parliament”, clarifies Ana Cuevas, representative of ANIR and mother of the victim in the case of the Gaztelueta school, Bizkaia, governed by Opus Dei. At the other extreme is Mans Petites, directed by Manuel Barbero, father of a victim in a religious school in Barcelona and the first to denounce the abuse scandal of Marists in Catalonia, who anticipates that he will not participate in the process promoted by Congress : “It is not [el mejor] mechanism, nor the forms, nor the person”, says Barbero, who points with his finger: “The Church should be inside. But as the PSOE goes to his own, what happens happens. Slammed in the face.”

The attitude that the ecclesiastical hierarchy will take in the investigation of the defender is the other important unknown. Gabilondo stated on March 18 that he wanted the Church to be part of his team: “I think it is better that they are here to be able to collaborate in clarifying [lo sucedido]”. After several ambiguous statements, the Spanish Episcopal Conference (CEE) replied with a negative, because they considered that they could not be judge and party, but also as a message of disagreement. Despite not participating, the president of the CEE, Cardinal Juan José Omella, has shown a clear speech about what the Spanish bishops will do: “Collaborate in everything they ask of us.” An affirmation that the secretary of the same entity, Bishop Luis Argüello, has always clarified with the condition of “within the framework of current legislation.” At the same time, the law firm Cremades & Calvo-Sotelo —a firm that the Spanish bishops have commissioned an audit of pederasty in the Church in recent decades— has been open to cooperate.

Both access to ecclesiastical archives and to the statements of those possibly responsible —bishops, superiors of orders, members of the clergy, etc.— are essential to collect data and corroborate the complaints that reach the defender. “All congregations keep records, reports, about what happens in the centers,” said Sean Ryan, the judge who led the investigation of pederasty in Ireland, in an interview with EL PAÍS this week. In it, he revealed that his team, “having the power of the law and the courts,” had the power to call witnesses to testify and access to documents. The option that, if Gabilondo does not have, he added, it will be “very complicated” for him to prepare a report. “The defender will have to find a way to call those responsible for the abuses in the clergy to testify,” he stressed.

It is at this point where Miguel Hurtado, a victim who uncovered the abuses in the abbey of Montserrat (Barcelona), perceives the defender’s Achilles heel: not having the legal force to force the prelates to cooperate. “The Church is not going to collaborate. You don’t have to be a fortune teller,” he says. The association to which he belongs, the Platform Tolerance 0, made up of several victims such as the writer Alejandro Palomas or the Vicki Bernadet Foundation, is committed to the creation of a commission directed by the State with coercive powers that can force the bishops to declare what what do they know.

The reality is that the dioceses —which are independent and are not relegated to the direction of the CEE— and the religious orders are not obliged to open their files before a commission of the defender, nor to deliver the data of the cases they have heard or tried in their own courts. A right included in the Agreements between the Spanish State and the Holy See of 1979: “The State respects and protects the inviolability of the archives, records and other documents belonging to the Spanish Episcopal Conference, the Episcopal Curias, the Curias of the Major Superiors of Religious Orders and Congregations, Parishes and other Ecclesiastical Institutions and Entities”.

The duration of the works is the last open question. Experts such as Varona and Tamarit consider that listening to victims and preparing a comprehensive study on it is a task for which a single year will not suffice —as established by the parallel commission of Cremades—. In France the work lasted three years and in Ireland almost a decade. Knowing if the delivery of the defender’s report will have a deadline will allow estimating its possible scope. Although Gabilondo has not given a date, sources from the process told this newspaper that he plans to present a report in 2023, before the end of the legislature, as a summary of what has been investigated up to that moment and that the work will continue until necessary. The position of the Ombudsman does not end with the legislature, but he was elected last November for a period of five years. However, the arrival of the next general elections and a possible change of government may also mean a change of scenery.

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