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Catholic school sex abuse case goes to trial in Spain

A former gym teacher at a Catholic school stood trial Monday in Barcelona for sexually assaulting students, as a growing trickle of abuse allegations shakes the church in Spain.

The trial involves a school run by the Marist community, a Roman Catholic order at the centre of a clerical abuse scandal in Chile. It comes amid sustained criticism of the Vatican’s response to a decades-long sexual abuse crisis.

Public prosecutors are seeking a 22-year jail sentence for Joaquin Benitez, charged with sexually assaulting four students at a Marist school in Barcelona where he worked for nearly three decades.

Thirteen other former students at the school also accused Benitez of sexual abuse but their cases could not go to trial because the alleged crimes happened too long ago.

The alleged abuse took place between the early 1980s and 2010.

Benitez, who is scheduled to take the stand on Tuesday, apologised to his victims as he left the court after the first day of the proceedings, justifying his behaviour by the fact that he himself had suffered sexual abuse as a student at Catholic boarding school.

“Instinctively I saw it as practically normal behaviour,” said Benitez, who wore a black ski mask to cover his face from the media.

His accusers testified behind closed doors Monday as did a police officer who told the court that Benitez would summon boys aged 13 or 14 to his office with the excuse that he needed to give them a massage to treat a sports injury.

“The abuses would follow from there,” the officer said.

The first public accusations against Benitez in 2016 triggered a cascade of other complaints at two other Marist schools in Barcelona.

In total, 43 complaints were filed against 12 teachers and staff but in the end only Benitez and a school lunch monitor will face trial because the statute of limitations has expired in the other cases.

– ‘Needs to change’ –

Under Spanish law the statute of limitations for cases of child sexual abuse starts to run from the moment the victim reaches the age of 18.

Spain’s Socialist government has introduced a draft law to raise that age to 30. The draft law also proposes statute of limitations of 10-20 years depending on the seriousness of the offence.

This would mean that a crime reported when a victim is middle aged could still proceed to court.

“Victims need more time to mature and file a complaint. This needs to change,” said Manuel Barbero, father of one of the alleged victims.

The Marist community might have to pay damages if it is found to be civilly liable for the abuse.

Questioned in court, a leader of the community denied trying to cover up the abuses.

The Marist community was at the centre of a major clerical abuse scandal that erupted in Chile in 2017 and led to the resignation of 34 bishops in the Latin American country.

Spain, historically a fervently Catholic country, has been less affected by clerical abuse scandals, but a rising number of accusations against priests in schools and seminaries is starting to erode the wall of silence.

Activists say many cases had likely been silenced as they were in other countries and could emerge now as the debate opens up.