Scribbler in Seville

Stolen babies: part 3. Spain’s shame

It’s back in the news again, this time because of an excellent BBC2 documentary which was broadcast last night.

The stolen babies scandal is taking on a higher profile. I’ve blogged about it in the past, having tracked developments in the Spanish press, but this programme had some new fascinating and disturbing details, including about the notorious “frozen baby”.

If you can’t get British TV, this radio clip from BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent is also worth listening to – the reporter from the documentary, Katya Adler, explains about the challenges she faced persuading the government to provide a spokesperson for the interview (who was totally non-committal), and also her bizarre encounter with the doctor implicated by a number of mothers whom he had told their babies had “died”.

The story, for those who haven’t yet heard about it, is that an estimated 300,000 babies were taken from their natural parents and then given – or more often sold – to other, more politically acceptable, families between the 1930s and the 1990s. This process was facilitated by doctors, nurse-nuns and priests (the Catholic Church was closely allied with Franco, playing an important role in hospitals and other state institutions). It started out as an ideologically driven programme – take the Reds’ babies away so they can be brought up with the correct ideals and beliefs – but soon became a financial one. Babies were paid for in cash, sometimes in installments which lasted for years.

One of the documentary’s interviewees recalled how he, a stolen baby who had been friends with another such boy since birth, would play in a square together with his fellow (unknowing) niño robado, chasing pigeons, while their parents went to hand over payments for them to a nun. It was the nuns and priests who would find prospective (childless) parents, tell the doctor, and the doctor would look for a suitable victim expectant mother. Once the baby was born, it would be taken away and, quite literally sold to its new adoptive parents, with the nun as cashier. Church+doctor+cash+unsuitable mother = baby.

When the mothers were told their babies had died, they made no move to argue with the doctors or nuns – you just didn’t question authority under a dictatorship. I remember reading one newspaper report where one of the parents did that, and was told to leave the hospital.

One doctor whose name has come up repeatedly – the doctor who showed mothers the “frozen baby” – is a Doctor Eduardo Vela Vela of the San Ramon Clinic, still a practising gynaecologist in Madrid. According to one mother in this shocking film, she was told to kiss a freezing cold baby – her sickly newborn girl, supposedly – and she wondered why the baby was so cold. She was later told the baby had not survived, and that as she had health problems and was disfigured, “it was better that she had died”.

A reporter from Interviu magazine, who was doing a story on the topic in the 1980s, was shown this baby and took a photo. When asked by the BBC reporter asked about the subject, Dr Vela said he was keeping the stillborn baby to do an autopsy. But many women were shown such a baby, and it is fairly sure that this same tragic little body was used as the “deceased infant” of many mothers. Deeply, deeply sinister, and deranged, man.

When asked about his actions, Dr Vela claimed they were “journalistic stories and nothing more”. “I was providing a service for women who didn’t want to, or couldn’t, keep their babies.” Chillingly, he went on, “I’ve never been reported to the police. I am totally free.” In other words, you’ll never pin anything on me – I’m untouchable.

The journalist who wrote the story about Dr Vela said that even after the dictatorship, doctors still retained their unassailable authority – “if you were a doctor in the 1980s, it was as if you were god.”

The ground for this sinister programme – for it was a highly organised network – was laid early on. In the documentary, it explains that Franco signed a law whereby adoptive parents could be listed as the biological parents on birth certificates, thereby removing all trace of the birth mother, and destroying all connection between the baby and its natural parents.

Alternatively, the term “mother unknown” could be added, to protect the identity of an unmarried mother. The reality was that in conservative, Catholic Spain, such women considered “sinners” and therefore unsuitable to bring up children. They were told their babies had died, and these children were brought up by more religious, Falangista (far right) parents.

One of the most important sticking points of this whole affair is the failure of the government to set up a national investigation, an official enquiry into all the disappearance of so many babies. This is not legally possible, because of the amnesty law (Ley 46/1977) passed during the “Transition” from dictatorship to democracy, which vowed to leave the past alone (the notorious pacto de silencio); in other words, those in power during a certain period – military leaders – were exempted from criminal liability.

Here are some choice quotes from people interviewed for the documentary – adults who were stolen as babies, adults looking for their stolen siblings, and mothers looking for their missing babies, now grown up.

“This (scandal) is too big for Spain.”

“Spanish society knew this was happening, but chose to look the other way.”

“I see the Church as public enemy number one.”

With all this new (international) attention being focussed on such a deeply emotive issue, and with nearly 900 cases being examined, I cannot believe that the government will be able to delay much longer in launching a formal investigation, whatever the legal obstacles. Clearly next month’s elections will be key in how things move forward; if the PP gets in, as is likely, that will put the kybosh on abolishing the amnesty law and starting an investigation, as the party are strong supporters -and protectors – of the Catholic Church.

Having said that, it is surely inevitable that those from the medical profession who are thought to have been involved – especially those with overwhelming evidence against them, like Dr Vela, evidence now in the public domain – will be brought to justice. The Spanish people will not let them go unpunished for much longer. Doctors, priests and nuns and no longer enjoy such inviolable positions – people aren’t scared of them like they were even a decade ago. The day of reckoning for those who committed these appalling crimes is coming soon.

3 thoughts on “Stolen babies: part 3. Spain’s shame

  1. Michi

    I had no idea that this was a part of Spain’s history, though I’m not entirely surprised, seeing how the Church still maintains a powerful influence here, and how numbers of people are still affected by the mentality that was prominent during Franco’s dictatorship, though it ended well over 30 years ago (when Spain won the World Cup last year, there were a few young adults from town running in the streets with their Francoist flags). Terribly sad, but yes, hopefully they’ll stand up together and bring these individuals to justice soon.

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      They need to stand together to pressurize the government, as it is they who must acknowledge the extent of the scandal, and act to initiate a full investigation. I’m not sure that the seriousness and scale of the situation have quite hit home yet. Either that or it’s the church, as you say, which is still so powerful, and is probably insisting it’s all lies, they haven’t done anything wrong. So good at denying, except there is so much evidence against them.

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