Spurred by Pope Francis, Spain charges 10 priests in country's largest known pedophilia case
Pope Francis (AFP Photo / Filippo Monteforte)

Spain's Catholic Church, which has long been accused of silencing cases of priests sexually abusing children, is starting to take a hard line against offenders, spurred by Pope Francis.

A judge in the southern city of Granada on Tuesday charged 10 priests and two Catholic lay workers with sexually abusing altar boys in their care, or being complicit in such acts, from 2004 to 2007.

It is the biggest and most serious paedophilia case involving members of the Catholic Church known so far in Spain.

The case was brought to light by a former altar boy, now 25 and a member of the Catholic institution Opus Dei, who wrote to the pontiff to say he had been molested.

Pope Francis called the unidentified man to offer the Church's apology and in November the pontiff said he had ordered a church investigation into the case, saying it had caused him "great pain".

The young man who wrote to the pope "never imagined the issue would take on the significance that it did," his lawyer, Jorge Aguilera Gonzalez, told AFP.

"If it wasn't for the pope's intervention, it would still have been an important issue, but just one of many."

Pope Francis has taken a tough stance on clerical child abuse since taking over in 2013 from Benedict XVI, calling it "the shame of the Church".

The Catholic Church had huge influence in Spain during Francisco Franco's 1939-75 dictatorship and for decades victims kept quiet about abuse "due to social pressure, the power of the Church", said Jose Manuel Vidal, head of religious news website Religion Digital.

That explains why, unlike in Germany, Ireland, Mexico or the United States, until now no major cases of paedophilia involving priests have come to light in Spain even though abuse took place.

Nine percent of all sexual abuse suffered by boys between 1950 and 1970 was carried out by priests, according to a 1994 study by University of Salamanca psychology of sexuality professor Felix Lopez for the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The abuse often took place in boarding schools, as depicted in Oscar-winning Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's 2004 film "Bad Education".

- Social change -

Spain has become an increasingly secular society since the country returned to democracy after Franco's death in 1975.

Of Spain's 33 million who declare they are Catholics, 61 percent say they are non-practising, according to a November survey by the state Sociological Research Centre (CIS).

"Now some bishops have changed, they have turned towards Pope Francis's new era," said Vidal.

"Others are lagging behind what the pope is asking for, which is total transparency and that paedophilia be considered by bishops themselves not just as a sin, as it has been up until now, but also as a crime," he added.

While priests accused of abuse have often remained in their posts, the Archbishop of Granada, Francisco Javier Martinez, removed several priests linked to the case from their duties as soon as the scandal broke.

Still some voices, even within the church, called for Martinez himself to step down.

"Given that every day the opinion grows that he acted to cover up the alleged paedophiles, we think he should be removed," Catholic group Comunidades Cristianas Populares de Andalucia said in a statement.

The archdiocese of Granada denied any cover-up and the priests accused over the alleged sexual abuse say they are innocent, according to their lawyer.

After the scandal broke in Granada, other victims of abuse have come forward with complaints and bishops have responded with a tough stance.

At the end of November, a 45-year-old man alleged he was abused in 1982 at a seminary in Tarragona in northeastern Spain when he was 11 years old.

After living with the secret his entire life, the man said he was encouraged to come forward by the paedophile case in Granada.

The Archbishop of Tarragona immediately launched an investigation, informed the Vatican and encouraged all victims to file criminal complaints.

The following month the diocese of Tui-Vigo in northwestern Spain abolished a religious order after its founder was accused of sexual abuse and detained by police.

"Things are changing," said Juan Pedro Oliver, the president of children's rights association Prodeni.

"But it is because of the attitude of the pope. I think if it was up to the Spanish Church hierarchy this would not be the case."