Severity of abuses of minors within the Catholic church

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The results were presented on Monday, June 28, in an event organized by the resp
The results were presented on Monday, June 28, in an event organized by the responsibles of the study.

Last April, the Spanish Catholic Church recognized, for the first time, 220 cases of abuses to minors by Spanish priests since 2001, according to what the representative of the Spanish Episcopal Conference stated in a press release. Initiatives to report sexual abuses in the religious institutions in Spain have been scarce and the protocols to prevent these in the Spanish catholic church are diverse, but have not undergone any investigation on the victimization over the years to tackle it properly.

This is one of the conclusions of the study on sexual abuses in the Catholic church carried out in Spain, conducted by Josep M. Tamarit, from the Open University of Catalonia (UOC); Noemí Pereda, from the University of Barcelona (UB) and Gema Varona, from the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU). The results of this study were presented on Monday, June 28, in the "Session on sexual abuses to minors in religious institutions: restorative responses from victimology", which took place in the auditorium of the Carlos Santamaría Centre of the University of the Basque Country. The event counted on the participation of experts on criminology, psychology, penal law and other fields of knowledge, among other professionals.

This project is coordinated by the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), together with the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), pioneer in this field since 2013, and the University of Barcelona (UB). The project covers the series of investigations on these abuses in Spain aiming to compare the results to those obtained in other countries and discuss the impact they can have for the reparation, intervention and prevention of this kind of victimization.

Multidisciplinary project

The study, carried out between 2018 and 2021, has been conducted by a group of professionals with a strong research experience in the field of victimology. Other studies which could assess specific aspects of the Spanish context have been conducted as part of this project as well.

The joint study includes quantitative and qualitative researches, which conclude the major impact on men, without prejudice to include a specific chapter with gender perspective on the invisibility of female victimization. Also, it reports the deep and lasting damage of the victims, regarding the committed crime and the secondary victimization and the added damage due to an institutional response that many times has hidden or silenced, or even blamed the victims. This joins the fact that some times, these victims were children or adolescents under situations of exclusion, social disadvantage or disability.

The study shows that the sexual abuses were committed, mainly, by the priests, who knew about the victims’ previous experiences of abuse, and therefore about their vulnerability and the inexistence of a protecting context, which allowed them to guarantee their impunity.

"The investigation on the way the Catholic church reacted towards the appearance of cases of abuses shows there have been many attitudes. The attitude that prevailed in many cases was a defensive one, based on denial or the minimization of the problem. When it was impossible to deny the existence of a case of abuse, the official response tended to present them as isolated cases or focused the explanations on the search for individual cases, linking the abuses to psychological traits of the abusers and ignoring the potential influence of environmental or structural causes", notes Tamarit, coordinator of the project.

Risk factors

This project tackled the structural cases of sexual abuse in the Spanish ecclesiastic institutions. Aspects such as the clerical power, moral perfectionism, conception of sexuality, secrecy, loneliness or the idea of sin and pardon were identified as risk factors. The UPV/EHU team focused on institutional and organizational aspects and analysed the damage caused by the so-called institutional and spiritual treason. A fundamental aspect they found is the instrumentalization of the victims and prioritizing the institutional reputation over the individual rights of the minors.

The project offers specific models of best practices that allow the religious and public institutions, as well as civil society, to develop solidarity responses for the victims, with honesty and commitment, two aspects they specially value. Also, they illustrate how other countries have faced successfully this social problem. The institutions have benefit from this, since they have taken this damage seriously and have conceptualized the problem within a framework of justice and public health.

The University of Barcelona has described the traits of the victims, mainly children, with previous experiences of abuses; the severity of sexual and repeated abuses with physical contact, including abuses with penetration in more than half the cases; the psychological consequences, with many victims with chronic anxiety and depression problems, sexual difficulties, eating and sleeping problems; and the spiritual trauma, linked to the extreme impact the sexual abuses had on their faith. The researchers have also analysed the reports made by the victims years after the sexual abuses, after a period of growth and reflection, as well as the institutional response which caused a new damage and feelings of betrayal that increased people’s discomfort.