Pious Demons: Spanish Baby-Snatching Victims Seek Answers and Justice

By Helene Zuber in Madrid

Until into the 1990s, doctors and nuns in Spain allegedly stole newborn babies and sold them to couples hoping to adopt. The vast scope of this lucrative baby-snatching network is only now coming to light as courts heed victims' calls for investigations and possible trials.

Sor María Gómez Valbuena, a member of the Daughters of Charity Zoom
AFP

Sor María Gómez Valbuena, a member of the Daughters of Charity

It's been a year since María Luisa Torres was reunited with her daughter. She gave birth to the girl in a Madrid hospital, but then the baby was taken away from her.

"For almost 30 years, I saw my child in the faces of people on the street," says Torres in a gravelly voice. But on a summer day last month, it is indeed the face of her daughter Pilar that emerges from a stream of pedestrians on the main shopping street in San Fernando de Henares, a town near Madrid. She has big, brown eyes and a pale complexion, and her face is framed by perfectly trimmed bangs and long hair dyed a mix of black, violet and red.

Torres calls her 30-year-old daughter, who works as a nurse's assistant, "mi reina." The mother has eyes of the same color and a similarly intense gaze. But the bags under her eyes reveal the toll that the last few months have taken on Torres, who is in her mid-50s. "My queen, you're so pretty," she says.

"I'm infinitely happy," says Torres, a geriatric nurse. In fact, she's also been very lucky. Not only has she found her middle daughter, whom she had given up for lost, but she has also managed to find documents that she hopes will prove that her baby was stolen and then sold 30 years ago -- and prove who did it. She is the first of many mothers of stolen children to have convinced an investigating judge to bring charges for kidnapping and document forgery.

Depriving 'Reds' of Offspring

All of these women share a similar fate. From the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, in 1936, until well into the 1990s, more than 300,000 children were reportedly taken from their biological parents and passed on to adoptive parents.

In regions captured by the anti-communist Nationalists during the war, doctors and nuns felt it was their patriotic duty to take newborns from "red parents" and give them to other families. There, they were to be raised in accordance with Nationalist and Catholic beliefs.

After the victory of the rebels under General Francisco Franco over the Republicans, the organized theft of babies became a political tool, a way of depriving leftists of their offspring. In 1941, Franco enacted a law that made it permissible to erase evidence of the ancestry of such children by changing their last names.

Most of these stolen children were entrusted to the care of Catholics loyal to the regime. The aim behind this was to rid an entire people of the "Marxist gene," at least according to the theories of Antonio Vallejo-Nájera, the national psychiatrist of Francoist Spain, that were widespread at the time.

From Conviction to Business

This specter of a Spanish national Catholicism even survived Franco's death in 1975. Nuns, especially members of the Hijas de la Caridad, or Daughters of Charity, whose training was more religious than intellectual, worked in the maternity wards of hospitals and in baby nurseries. They blindly obeyed their mothers superior and priests who, in turn, decided who deserved a child and who didn't. As a result, what were generally young or unmarried women became victims of baby theft. After all, the reasoning went, according to the Church's teachings, these mothers were living "in sin."

But even rising prosperity and Spain's transformation into a democratic constitutional state apparently did not protect young mothers from this religious mafia of baby thieves. What may have begun as an act of misguided altruism appears to have grown into a business, in which adoptive parents allegedly paid up to a million pesetas, or the equivalent of about €20,000 ($25,000), for a child. Indeed, in a society that essentially considered it the legal right of married couples to have children, there was great demand for babies.

Torres is now pursuing legal action against this business. A judge in the Spanish capital is investigating Sor María Gómez Valbuena, a member of the Daughters of Charity. The nun, now 87, was once in charge of social welfare in the maternity ward of Madrid's Santa Cristina Hospital. On March 31, 1982, she allegedly took the infant away from Torres and sold it to a devout, childless couple. So far, Sister María has denied all allegations. In an open letter to the media, she insisted that she was innocent and claimed that she had spent her life "selflessly helping the neediest," guided only by her "deep religious convictions."

Now the investigating judge in Madrid wants to hear testimony from the hospital's former chief physician, other doctors and administrative employees. Once he has completed the evidentiary hearings, the main trial could begin in the fall.

A Massive Investigation

The case of Torres and her daughter Pilar has triggered a wave of investigations and has given hope to other victims of organized baby theft. The local press has dubbed her "Mother Courage," but she prefers to call herself "Mater dolorosa," or "mother of pain."

The vast scope of the crimes has shaken Spanish society more than almost any other issue. Journalists, such as Natalia Junquera and Jesús Duva of El País, the leading Spanish daily, have documented the fates of many victims, and two private television stations plan to air miniseries on the subject.

Even the government of the conservative People's Party, which is otherwise very close to the Catholic Church, has launched investigations. Cabinet ministers have promised to look into the scope of cases, set up a centralized DNA database and appoint a special prosecutor to address the legal aspects of the tragedy.

By the beginning of the year, 1,500 reports of alleged baby-napping cases had already been received from all over the country. However, more than a quarter of the cases had to be dismissed based on a lack of evidence, partly because many hospital files and cemetery records from the Franco years have since been destroyed.

"I've opened a Pandora's box," Torres says. Her attorney, who is with the organization S.O.S. Bebés Robados, or S.O.S Robbed Babies, has just learned that the attorneys for the nun being sued failed in their attempt to have the case thrown out because of the statute of limitations.

Torres now has one overriding goal: She wants to see Sister María at the defense table. She also wants the investigating judge to determine how the network of baby robbers worked, who belonged to it and what happened to the 100,000 pesetas -- enough money to buy a small used car at the time -- that Sister María allegedly collected from Pilar's adoptive parents.

Brought Together by Facebook

Pilar, her daughter, is also demanding that the nun "pay for what she has done," adding: "She ruined my life."

Pilar says that it is both "wonderful and difficult" to suddenly have a large family. She feels that her two half-sisters are "part of me." She and the older one, 32-year-old Inés, look alike. Pilar confesses that she dyed her hair a darker color to emphasize the resemblance.

Pilar had begun to track down her origins after outgrowing her untroubled childhood days in a Madrid suburb. Her adoptive parents had sent to her to schools run by nuns, and Pilar felt stifled by the cold, distant and straitlaced, system. But then her adoptive parents separated.

Her adoptive father, Alejandro Alcalde, helped Pilar search for her origins. Together, they confronted Sister María in her order's residential home. When 15-year-old Pilar, with her blonde curls, asked about her biological mother, the nun replied that her mother had been very attractive, and that her grandmother had had the same blonde hair as Pilar. But then Sister María indicated that the mother had seemed very young to her, that she was apparently a prostitute, and that she had left her baby behind in the hospital.

Pilar posted her story on Facebook, which her mother was also using. Torres had made it an annual habit to wish her long-lost daughter a happy birthday on March 31. A TV journalist discovered the matching details of the two profiles. When the mother and daughter took a DNA test, it showed a 99-percent chance that the two were related. Even so, when the two were introduced to each other on a TV show a year ago, they both thought: "It can't be her."

Falling 'Into the Spider's Web'

Torres, the mother, shakes her head about the false expectations she had had at the time. She had imagined her daughter with blue eyes and dark hair. But there, on the same set, was a blonde girl with brown eyes.

"There is nothing charitable about Sister María. She was a demon," Torres says today. Old photos reveal a resemblance with her daughter. At the time, Torres was 24 and separated from her husband. Her mother took care of her daughter, Inés, while she worked as a waitress. "Did I look like a street girl?" she asks, almost as if she feels compelled to justify herself.

An ad in a magazine had brought Torres to Sister María at Santa Cristina Hospital. The ad promised working mothers help in caring for their infants, and Torres needed help. Her boyfriend at the time wanted nothing to do with a child, and she couldn't burden her mother any further.

Together with her mother, Torres, then in her fifth month of pregnancy, paid a visit to the social worker, who was wearing the close-fitting cap of her nun's habit and met them in a small, dark room. "I trusted her," Torres recalls, saying that Sister María was friendly as she explained her difficult situation to her. She was told that the baby would be kept in a nursery. She would have to pay for that, the nun reportedly added, but she could visit or pick up the child whenever she wanted.

When her contractions began, Torres and her mother went back to the hospital. Following the nun's instructions, they entered through a side door and, without registering, asked for Sister María. Torres says the nun took her to a private ward on an upper floor and immediately placed a mask over her face to sedate her. Then she was injected with a drug to hasten her contractions. The baby "shot out in 10 minutes. I could have bled to death," Torres says three decades later. She is still ashamed for so carelessly allowing herself to be lured "into the spider's web."

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