Spain struggles with new Catholic sex abuse claims

For almost 50 years, the Franciscan Brothers of the White Cross have run care homes across Spain, looking after the sick and the needy.

Now the Catholic order and its centre in Cordoba are the focus of allegations of sex abuse that have shocked the city.

Franciscan Brothers' care home in Cordoba A Cordoba Catholic care home is at the centre of sex abuse allegations

They have also thrust Spain into the global dispute over how the Church handles claims of abuse.

The Francis of Assisi centre is housed in a pristine low-rise building on the edge of Cordoba. Since the centre's head and two colleagues were formally accused of sexual abuse last week, no-one has been answering the bell to strangers.

Most staff dash through the tall gates, eyes averted. Only one woman pauses to say that she supports Brother Manolo.

Well-known and respected for his charity work, the Catholic brother is now under a court order to keep away from the centre he once ran, and from its residents.

Moments later, a minibus pulls up and three young men are helped across the street. All clearly have severe mental disabilities, as do their 50 or so fellow residents at the centre.

New accusations

The details of what is alleged to have gone on have not been disclosed.

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In contrast with other countries like the Republic of Ireland or the US, Spain has featured relatively little in discussions about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy ”

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The centre first came under scrutiny last October when an anonymous letter led to the detention of a lay worker. He has since been charged with three counts of sexual abuse.

More anonymous letters then appeared, and three other staff members, including Brother Manolo, are now under investigation.

In contrast with other countries like the Republic of Ireland or the US, Spain has featured relatively little in discussions about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and accusations of an institutional cover-up.

Since 2001, Spain has reported 14 confirmed cases of clerical sex abuse to the Vatican.

But this month brought two fresh accusations: one against a Carmelite monk in eastern Spain, the other against Franciscan brothers in the south.

They came as Pope Benedict visited Portugal and made his strongest comments yet about the abuse scandal that has rocked the Church.

Unlike senior Vatican officials who have talked of a hate campaign against Catholicism, the Pope acknowledged "the sin within" the Church, which he called "terrifying". He also reminded Catholics that forgiveness does not exclude justice.

Delay?

Church officials in Cordoba say they have learnt that lesson.

In a statement issued after Brother Manolo appeared in court, the Bishopric said it was doing everything within its jurisdiction to assist the court, and for the welfare of the victims.

Rocio pilgrimage Most Spaniards say they are Catholic and many are shocked by allegations of sexual abuse

And yet, a Church official has revealed that the Bishopric received confidential information about potential sexual abuse at the Catholic care home at least two weeks before the court stepped in, and informed no-one.

"We heard about it at the end of April. There were certain accusations, charges of sexual abuse," Father Fernando Cruz Conde recalls.

The vicar general of Cordoba says the claims were brought to the Church in confidence, and officials began an internal inquiry. He is convinced there was no need to inform the courts.

"We have to be certain of the truth first," Fr Fernando says. "It might be revenge, or whatever."

He insists the Church would have reported the case to prosecutors "very shortly". As it was, the court got its own tip-off, and acted on it.

At another care home for people with disabilities nearby, Juan Solano gives me a guided tour of the facilities. As the man in charge here, he has no doubt about best practice for abuse claims.

"These cases should be handed over to the police immediately," Mr Solano believes. "The police are much better prepared to handle them. It's up to them to determine how serious a case is."

Shock and disbelief

Outside the city's magnificent historic mosque, now Cordoba Cathedral, a crowd gathered last week for the annual nine-day pilgrimage to a shrine at Rocio.

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There's a tendency to over-emphasise these cases in order to criticise and isolate the Church. I think it's probably a misunderstanding”

End Quote Miguel Rocio pilgrim

Women in flamboyant flamenco-style dresses and men on horseback crowded into the narrow cobbled streets, singing and clapping.

It is a sign of the central place religion still occupies in Spanish society, especially in the "reconquered" south, once ruled by the Muslim Moors.

The procession set off, showered with flowers - a riot of colour and music behind carriages loaded with candles and religious imagery.

Three in four Spaniards call themselves Catholic, and many in Cordoba are shocked by allegations of sexual abuse in their parish.

"There's a tendency to over-emphasise these cases in order to criticise and isolate the Church," one man, Miguel, says, echoing the disbelief of many. "I think it's probably a misunderstanding."

The court will now consider the evidence, and Church officials say they will co-operate.

But their language may raise doubts that the approach to such cases has changed much.

"We have to condemn the sin, but show mercy to the sinner as our Lord told us," Fr Fernando underlines.

"We must show mercy so he may repent and […] go again to the good path."

His words spell out Catholic teaching on forgiveness.

But that focus lays the Church open to criticism that its priorities are misplaced, from those who prefer talk of "criminals" to "sinners", and who want assurances that abuse claims will be reported promptly to secular courts, not handled in silence behind the tall, heavy wooden doors of the Bishopric.

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