The Spanish case is shocking: but we cruelly remove children from ‘undesirable’ families too

There are some things I often just don’t want to write about (though I know I have to) when they come up: the most obvious one being stories to do with clerical sex abuse (particularly when I know that they are untrue or exaggerated and have to be rebutted or put into some broader context). I know that if I do write about them without just joining in the general execration, I will be accused of attempting to “make excuses” for whatever it is that has happened: that I will minimise the crime because I am a bigoted apologist for the Church, whatever priests or nuns have actually done.

So let me begin by saying that it is inexcusable if true (and I have no doubt that it is) that in Spain not only under General Franco but for many years afterwards, doctors, and nuns who were nurses, were involved in informing mothers that their newborn children had died, and that they and Catholic priests were involved in “selling” these children of Left-wing parents to “Right-wing” (i.e. non-Communist) Catholic parents. Under Franco this was done for ideological reasons: he really thought that Left-wing attitudes could be bred out of Spanish culture in this way. Today, it seems like a mad and cruel as well as a politically inept and stupid thing to have done. And of course it WAS stupid and of course it WAS mad and cruel: but it was a madness and cruelty bred from and perpetuating a madness and cruelty that Franco did not himself engender. If you know nothing of Spanish history read the following; as far as I can ascertain, this is a dispassionate and true account:

The Red Terror in Spain (Spanish: Terror Rojo en España) is the name given by historians to various acts committed “by sections of nearly all the leftist groups” such as the killing of tens of thousands of people (including 6,832 members of the Catholic clergy, the vast majority in the summer of 1936 in the wake of the military rising), as well as attacks on landowners, industrialists, and politicians, and the desecration and burning of monasteries and churches. A process of political polarisation had characterised the Spanish Second Republic – party divisions became increasingly embittered and questions of religious identity came to assume a major political significance.

Some estimates of the Red Terror range from 38,000 to 72,344 lives.

There is no doubt at all that Spain was for much of the twentieth century a deeply traumatised country. Mostly, today, it is generally assumed by the bien pensants that the trauma was caused mostly by the Franco regime: it is those who fought for the republican side, like George Orwell, who represent the historically politically virtuous. Few Catholics in this country today can be found to defend the Franco regime (and I certainly don’t intend to). But in the thirties, it was very different. When I was editor of this newspaper, I ran a regular column with extracts from the Herald from some decades before. This involved going back to the thirties and forties: and I was astonished as well as shocked to discover that the Herald firmly and consistently supported the Franco regime. But why was I so surprised? There is nothing quite so silly as to impose today’s political virtues and attitudes on the past, which is, you will remember, a foreign country: they do things differently there—and the corollary of that is that so, quite likely, would we have done. That doesn’t, I repeat, excuse it. But maybe it will make us less certain of our own superior rectitude.

In Spain, though, there is still a puzzle; and this will be a continuing trauma for the Spanish Church well into the future. For, even after Franco’s death this shocking practice continued in democratic Spain. There are real questions to be asked now: who in the Church knew that this was going on? And when did they know it? And why was nothing done, not only by the Church (did the bishops know?) but also by the government (for it appears that the authorities were not unaware of it)?

Most important of all: how could the idea of what the BBC’s Katya Adler calls “The practice of removing children from parents deemed ‘undesirable’ and placing them with ‘approved’ families” ever have become sanctioned, even in Franco’s Spain, let alone facilitated by the Catholic Church, or at least by some of its clergy and religious? Of course, such a thing could never happen here. Could it? Well, the fact is that as I wrote on Friday, something not unlike it DOES happen here. It is no better and no worse than what has happened in Spain. It is the same: the criteria of familial desirability are different, but the principle is identical: it is precisely “the practice of removing children from parents deemed ‘undesirable’ and placing them with ‘approved’ families”. Here, from the Christian Voice website (its current print edition has a lengthy report on forced adoption in this country) are just two brief paragraphs, which convey an infinity of heartbreak. They represent not an exceptional story, but a common occurrence

Sam, 23, had her baby Angela removed from her in 2009 when Social Services concluded she was psychologically damaged and therefore unfit to be a mother. Social workers have also threatened to remove any future children Sam bears. However, independent psychologists who analysed Angela have said she is fine.

[Sam said] “I had to put her into the social worker’s car and she started screaming. I wasn’t allowed to do anything. They just made crystal-ball predictions without giving me a chance. I wanted another assessment but they refused.”

There is more: but that tells the story, not just of Sam but of many other mothers too. So before you attack those in the Spanish Church who covertly (and profoundly wrongly) did what we do openly (so that none of us have any right to speak against them unless we are prepared to condemn also what happens with the open sanction of the political system we ourselves mostly support) it is best, rather, coolly to consider the roots of these abuses—their ultimate origins in human nature and in the traumas and perplexities of society and human history.