Spain's Stolen Babies: A Nation Confronts Its Dark Past
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By LISA ABEND / MADRID Lisa Abend / Madrid – Fri Mar 18, 12:10 pm ET
It has been four decades since Pilar Maroto lost her newborn son, but tears still fill her eyes when she speaks of him. She perfectly remembers the moments after his birth in April 1972, when she heard his first cry and then, later, the sudden, devastating news that her little boy had died. On Tuesday, she stood outside Spain's Congress of Deputies and hoped that, finally, someone in power would take seriously her insistence that her baby didn't actually die on that day - instead, he was stolen by the hospital where she delivered him.
Rumors of widespread, organized efforts to steal newborns from their parents have circulated in Spain for decades. But it was only on March 15 when those who believe themselves to be victims of the crime had their first opportunity to tell their stories to the Spanish government. Their testimony, given in an attempt to persuade Spain's legislature to pass a law that would both help those who have had their babies taken from them and make it easier to prosecute perpetrators, is accompanied by legal cases that have, after years of effort, recently been admitted to the regional courts for investigation. Finally, it seems, Spain is ready to confront a horrifying aspect of its recent past.
There appear to be two distinct phases of baby theft that occurred in Spain during the 20th century. The first, which was not only approved by dictator Francisco Franco but also promoted by his government as a means of "improving" the Spanish "race," was politically inspired. In the years after Franco won Spain's civil war, he had tens of thousands of former Republicans and other dissidents arrested. The small children of imprisoned women dissidents were sent first to state-run centers or convents, and then reassigned to families whose values better coincided with the regime's. "The state considered these children in need of re-education," says University of Barcelona historian Ricard Vinyes, who has written a book on the subject. "It was actually proud of these efforts and would publish the results of how many children had been 'welcomed' annually."
Based on the documentation he has uncovered, Vinyes estimates that tens of thousands of children were taken from their parents during a campaign that lasted until the end of the 1940s. In many cases, they were never recovered. "The state allowed these children to change their names, making it harder for them to be located," he says. "And they were brought up being taught that their parents were murderers, so many had no desire to find them."
As the regime became both less virulent about persecuting its enemies and more open to the outside world, the wave of politically motivated thefts receded - but then a new form of baby stealing emerged. In what appear to be thousands of cases throughout Spain, individual doctors and nurses - many of the latter nuns - took newborns from obstetric wards and sold them to prospective adopted parents. That's the claim by victims who, in many cases, can support their theory with death certificates that have clearly been falsified or cemetery documents that contradict what parents were told at the supposed time of death.
Mar Soriano believes her elder sister was one of the stolen children. On Tuesday, she told a commission of legislators how her mother delivered an apparently healthy baby girl on Jan. 3, 1964, at a hospital in Madrid. Later that day, however, her parents were told the child had died, and when her father went to claim his daughter's body, he was told she had already been buried in a mass grave at the Almudena cemetery. "They said she had died of an ear infection," Soriano testified. "Along with Beatriz, there were 10 other children born in the same hospital and during the same month whose cause of death was listed as ear infection." In total, 37 newborns supposedly died at that hospital during January 1964.
Soriano's story is remarkably similar to that of the 1,000 or so people - parents who believe their babies were taken from them, and men and women who believe their siblings or they themselves were stolen - who have joined a suit recently filed in Valencia's provincial court. In each case, the woman gave birth to what she believed to be a healthy child, only to later be told that the infant had died and that it was impossible to see the body. Those babies were then allegedly sold to couples who paid, on average, the equivalent of $8,000. And the people accused of doing the selling are in many cases the very doctors and nurses who had delivered the babies. This is according to testimony given to lawyers and journalists by people who unwittingly bought the babies - many were told the charges were to cover the mother's expenses.
"There was no longer any legal cover for what they were doing," says lawyer Enrique Vila, who, in the Valencia case, is representing Anadir, an association of parents and children who believe they were the unwitting victims of these thefts. "But some doctors, priests and nuns realized that there were economic benefits to the practice."
Economic and, it seems, spiritual. Many of the women who believe their children were stolen were unmarried at the time, a shocking breach of social norms during the strict years of the Catholic Franco regime. Journalist Natalia Junquera has been investigating the cases for a series that the national newspaper El PaÍs is publishing this month. "From what I've seen, the most important motive was ideological," she says. "Nuns and priests who simply decided that the child would be better off with families they trusted than with the ones to which they had been born." The thefts are believed to have continued into the early 1980s.
So far, according to Anadir, only one mother-child pair has been reunited. A woman, born in 1971 and believing herself to have been adopted, joined the association in the hopes of simply locating her biological parents. When Anadir ran her information through its database, it discovered overlapping details with an older woman. According to Anadir, DNA testing confirmed that they were mother and daughter, though the elder woman had been told her child had died in the Barcelona hospital where she was delivered. Both women have kept their identities secret.
Spain's Episcopal Conference, the ruling body of the Catholic Church in Spain, has thus far not commented on the cases, saying only that it learned of their existence through the media. Vila emphasizes that he does not believe it was church policy to facilitate these thefts, but rather, a high number of nuns and priests are implicated because they formed an important part of hospital staff at the time. Still, he notes, "It's possible that the church simply looked the other way."
A similar attempt to bring these charges to court failed several years ago, when the investigating court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to doubt the children's causes of death. But this time, the government seems to be listening. In addition to Tuesday's hearing, it has authorized free DNA tests for any mother and child who believe themselves to be victims of a theft. The Valencia case, whose first, investigatory phase is expected to take six months, is being joined by similar ones in the Basque Country, Madrid, Catalonia, Andalusia and the Canary Islands.
For Pilar Maroto, these recent developments are a vindication. Waiting to enter the Congress building, she clutched the letter from the Almudena cemetery informing her that it has no record of her son being buried there, and issued a plea to the women who may have adopted a stolen baby. "Any mother with a minimal amount of dignity has to tell her child that he was bought," she told TIME. "First, so that those responsible for these crimes can be punished. And second, so that maybe those of us who lost our children can be reunited with them." Pausing to compose herself, Maroto noted that her son would now be 39 years old. "I still have hope we'll find each other."