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Spain drops sex abuse charges against nine priests

MADRID: A Spanish court has dropped charges against nine out of ten Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing an altar boy, court papers showed Monday, in a case in which Pope Francis intervened.

The nine priests, along with two laymen, had been charged with “sexual abuse without penetration, exhibitionism, and concealment of evidence” involving an underage boy between 2004 and 2007.

But the court in the southern city of Granada, where the alleged abuse took place, ruled their accuser, now aged 25, should have brought a case within three years of turning 18.

One priest, however, is still charged with “continued sexual abuse, with the introduction of a bodily member anally and attempt to introduce the penis”, according to the ruling dated January 26.

The statute of limitations does not yet apply to his alleged crimes, which are deemed more serious.

If convicted, the clergyman faces up to 10 years behind bars.

He and his 11 initial co-accused were charged last month with sexual abuse or complicity in abuse. The boy was 14 when the alleged abuse began.

The paedophilia scandal is the biggest yet involving the Catholic Church in Spain, involving a record number of suspects.

The alleged victim says he was raped and made to perform sex acts with one of the priests at a villa with a swimming pool. Others allegedly also took part or turned a blind eye to the acts.

The alleged leader of the group told the teen he had a promising career as a priest ahead of him and chided him for resisting his advances, the charge sheet said.

Case caused pope ‘great pain’

Pope Francis said he had ordered a church investigation into the case after the complainant — who has not been identified — wrote to him, telling him he had been molested as an altar boy.

The Argentine pontiff, who has taken a zero-tolerance approach to clerical sex abuse, told reporters on November 25 that he heard of the case “with great pain, very great pain, but the truth is the truth and we should not hide it”.

A second man aged 44 has also accused one of the priests of abuse in the early 1990s.

Spanish children’s rights association Prodeni, which is a civil plaintiff in the case, said it would appeal the court’s decision to drop the charges.

“The public must know that we are going to use every appeal possible,” the group’s president, Juan Pedro Oliver Gimenez, told AFP.

He said the priests should have been charged with “sexual aggression” instead of “sexual abuse”, which would haven fallen within the statute of limitations.

‘Heartbreaking’ ruling

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a US-based victims’ group which has repeatedly called on the Vatican to discipline bishops suspected of covering up abuse, said the court’s decision was “heartbreaking”.

“We strongly suspect that these defendants successfully exploited legal technicalities like the statute of limitations to evade justice. If so, they should be ashamed of themselves,” it said in a statement.

After the scandal broke, the Archbishop of Granada, Francisco Javier Martinez, removed some priests linked to the case from their duties.

During a mass in November he threw himself on the cathedral floor, in front of the altar, in a gesture of apology to abuse victims.

The scandal has prompted other victims of clerical sexual abuse to come forward with complaints.

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. – AFP

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