Spain's Catholic Church has pledged to carry out an independent investigation into alleged cases of sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy, following claims by victims that it has attempted to cover up any wrongdoing.
The head of the church in Spain, Cardinal Juan José Omella, said the main objective of the inquiry, which would be the first of its kind in Spain, was to provide "help and compensation" to victims of abuse.
He said the Catholic Church “wants to assume its responsibilities by setting up a new tool that helps clarify the acts of the past and prevents them from reappearing in the future”.
The church has hired a law firm, Cremades & Calvo-Sotelo, to carry out the investigation, which will also see an advisory role for Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, a German firm which carried out a similar probe in Munich, documenting nearly 500 abuse victims in that city.
“I am truly overwhelmed by the responsibility of handling a task which involves offering Spanish society an independent judicial audit that genuinely constitutes the truth,” said Javier Cremades, of the Spanish law firm, speaking alongside the cardinal.
Mr Cremades said the probe would last at least a year and would co-operate with any other investigations.
The Spanish Church has been under mounting pressure to take an active role in uncovering abuse since El País newspaper reported 251 alleged cases affecting at least 1,237 victims in December. El País says its journalists handed the findings directly to Pope Francis during a flight and that he gave the document to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The state prosecutor said last week that 68 judicial investigations into allegations of abuse within religious organisations are under way.
However, the Spanish church has faced criticism from victims’ groups and some politicians in recent weeks for an apparent unwillingness to act. It has warned that a probe by parliament or the ombudsman, which has been discussed, would politicise the issue.
On Monday, the archbishop of Seville, José Ángel Saiz Meneses, insisted that “there are no complaints” by alleged victims in parishes and that only “0.2 percent” of clergy had been involved in cases of abuse, making this no more of a problem for the Catholic Church than for other institutions.
However, the archbishopric of Madrid published a video on YouTube last week in which it appeared to take a different stance. “The fact there are no complaints does not mean there are no cases,” the video says. “Cases from the past are cases from the present.”
While announcing the details of the investigation, Cardinal Omella offered an apology.
“In the name of the Spanish church I apologise publicly for the whole issue of abuses within the Church, for all the victims who have suffered and still suffer,” he said.
However, he added: “That is why we feel hurt at all abuses in other institutions, which we also want investigated.”
Fernando García Salmones, of the Stolen Childhood victims’ group, said the Church’s announced willingness to investigate was “just another effort to cover up rather than clarify”. He added: “For every case we hear about there are 20 more.”