Will the Spanish government and bishops overcome their differences?

4 mins read
The Spanish bishops conclude their special plenary assembly July 9, 2024 after they agreed on a Comprehensive Reparation Plan for Victims of Abuse, known under the Spanish acronym PRIVA. Archbishop Luis Argüello of Valladolid, president of the Spanish bishops' conference, is pictured in the center, with Cardinal José Cobo of Madrid (at left) and Cardinal Juan José Omella of Barcelona (at right). (OSV News photo/courtesy Spanish bishops' conference)

MADRID (OSV News) — Spain’s bishops and the country’s government are on collision course once again over rival reports on Church sexual abuse.

This time the heated debate concerns a financial compensation plan for the victims approved by the bishops’ conference on July 9 and rejected by government authorities.

Holistic reparation for abuse victims

The bishops’ plan provides for “holistic reparation” and includes psychological, social, spiritual and financial aspects. It also intends to compensate victims whose cases reached the statute of limitations under criminal law or cannot be prosecuted by the courts because those accused are dead. Until now, the policy of the Church in Spain was to pay compensation only when the case was proved before a court and in the amount determined by the judge.

“Our work doesn’t begin or end today, but today is important,” Archbishop Luis Argüello of Valladolid, president of the Spanish bishops’ conference, said on July 9 at a press conference after the special plenary assembly of the bishops discussed the compensation document, known as PRIVA, the Spanish acronym for the Comprehensive Reparation Plan for Victims of Abuse.

“None of this can heal by itself the pain that the victims have suffered over decades,” but “we want to continue in this determined drive to welcome them, accompany them and make amends,” Archbishop Argüello said.

The document, however, is “a subsidiary plan when the legal avenue has already been exhausted,” the archbishop stressed. In these cases, “when the legal avenues have been closed for the victims,” the church “wants to keep the door open to listen to any victim and respond with a comprehensive reparation plan.”

Implementation and scope of PRIVA

A special body has been set up to implement the plan and examine each case separately to find individual solutions. The commission, consisting of church, legal and medical-forensic experts, may include a representative of the victims, but does not necessarily have to do so. Experts will advise each diocese on how to best attend to each victim.

Archbishop Luis Argüello of Valladolid and president of the Spanish bishops’ conference (left) speaks in the presence of Cardinal Juan José Omella of Barcelona as the Spanish bishops conclude their special plenary assembly July 9, 2024. (OSV News photo/courtesy Spanish bishops’ conference)

“What we have adopted today is not a legally binding decree that binds dioceses and religious orders,” Archbishop Argüello said, but rather is about fulfilling a “moral obligation.” He added that “since most of the cases are from before the 1990s, many cannot be pursued because of the statutes of limitations that limit ordinary law.”

The estimate on how many victims the church could help with PRIVA was not provided, however the 2023 report by the bishops had found evidence of 728 sexual abusers within the church since 1945. Seventy-five percent of the cases had occurred before 1990 and more than 60% of the offenders were dead, the conference said.

Government rejection and criticism

Spain’s public ombudsman office indicated that the total number of victims, including minors, could be much higher. Following the ombudsman’s report, Spain’s government approved a plan in 2023 to force the church to pay economic compensation to the victims of abuse.

The government said in a July 8 statement it would reject PRIVA even if all 67 bishops who attended the extraordinary meeting in Madrid on July 9 backed the plan, a number confirmed by Archbishop Argüello. Three documents were approved — with only one abstention on one of the documents. The plan’s “resolutions are not mandatory, so in no way does it guarantee reparation,” the government lamented in its statement.

Bishops defend their plan

The bishops reacted strongly to the statements of several members of the Cabinet, underscoring that the compensation plan goes well beyond any legal obligation. “It’s certainly a unilateral plan, because it’s the consequence of a free decision due to a moral obligation,” said Archbishop Argüello.

The bishops’ conference also refuted the government’s concern about the sincerity of the plan, since the church has entrusted the evaluation of economic compensation to an independent panel of 10 members, only two of whom represent the church.

“Observers may wonder why the government is forcing the church to accept their way of compensating victims — by the rule ‘the government decides, and then the church pays’ — but abuse in the church became a political issue long ago in Spain, starting with a fact that it’s the government that first decided to investigate church sexual abuse, before the commission backed by Spain’s bishops was established,” said Yago de la Cierva, a Spanish communications professor who teaches at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, author of a book on crisis management for the church.

For La Cierva, only politics can explain why the Spanish government is doing nothing about the victims of sexual abuse in family settings, schools, sports clubs and other environments. But the current situation “doesn’t look good for the church,” he stressed.

“In Spain,” the expert said, “citizens give contributions to the church through taxes, but since taxes first go through the government, those in power may confiscate that money, and compensate victims directly.”

Also victims fear politicization of the compensation campaign.

Victims’ concerns over politicization

Right before the special plenary assembly of the bishops, the government summoned victims’ associations on July 8 to convey its support and inform them of the progress of the work on a reparation system.

One victim who spoke to the Spanish Catholic media outlet Alfa y Omega on July 8 said that what the government does is “political maneuvers” and “hidden agendas.”

“Ideological interests cannot be allowed. There are many people who are suffering,” the victim, who spoke anonymously, lamented. The victim acknowledged “a great advance in the action of the church.”

The problem for the victims however is that “we started from minus ten.”

“This is exactly right,” La Cierva said. The church did not want to come forward first, and seemed to take action only when pushed — either by the government or the paper El Pais, which has been in a crusade against the church for decades,” he said.

For the victims however, the government’s move now is what they call “robbing the church of its role and prominence.” In the conversation with Alfa y Omega, the victim said: “It is unacceptable that they set themselves up as guarantors of reparation when in reality they are not. Enough of trying to gain electoral advantage.”

Paulina Guzik

Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @Guzik_Paulina.