Spain's Stolen-Babies Scandal: Empty Graves and a Silent Nun

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Pedro Armestre / AFP / Getty Images

Sister María Gómez Valbuena leaves a court in Madrid on April 12, 2012, after refusing to testify on her alleged involvement in a stolen-babies scheme

The elderly woman who left Madrid's courthouse on Thursday morning looked stooped and ghostly, but neither her obvious frailty nor the plain blue habit she wore kept the small crowd of onlookers from screaming at her. "Shameless!" one woman shouted. "How could you cause so much suffering?"

Thursday was supposed to be the day that began to bring resolution to those who believe themselves victims of decades of baby robbing in Spain. The nun called to testify, Sister María Gómez Valbuena, is the first person indicted for her alleged involvement in a scheme that supposedly saw thousands of newborns taken from their mothers and sold to adoptive parents. But once in front of the judge, Gómez Valbuena exercised her right to remain silent. And later that day at a meeting with representatives of victims' associations, Spanish government officials admitted that, although they would dedicate administrative resources to attempting to reunite mothers and children, the chances of bringing to justice those who had separated the families were slim.

Some 1,500 accusations of baby stealing, dating from the late 1950s until the mid-'80s, have been filed in Spain in the past year or two. Most follow the same chilling narrative: a single mother or a married woman who already had several children gave birth to an apparently healthy child but was soon told — often by a nun who worked as a nurse — that the baby had died. Although the adoptive parents frequently paid significant amounts of money for their child, ideology more than greed appears to have been behind the thefts. "These are nuns and priests who strongly believed that the child would be better off with a more traditional or more 'moral' family," explains journalist Natalia Junquera, who has led the newspaper El País' investigation of the thefts. "They honestly thought they were doing the right thing."

Since the cases first began garnering attention more than a year ago, DNA testing has reunited six mothers with children they believed dead. Dozens of parents have found that the coffins in which they believed their newborns to be buried are in fact empty, or that civil registries do not contain death certificates for children they thought had died at birth. And yet until Gómez Valbuena, no one had actually been charged with a crime. The courts have closed many of the cases for lack of evidence.

"The prosecutors are frustrated," says Junquera. "They have signs that something is wrong — what could be clearer than an empty grave? — but nothing that will hold up in court."

Victims had hoped that Gómez Valbuena's indictment would change that. The nun was charged after DNA tests reunited María Luisa Torres with her daughter Pilar, whom she had not seen since birth. According to her testimony before the court, Torres was 24 years old in 1982 and separated from her husband when she became pregnant by another man. Having heard about a nun at the Santa Cristina clinic in Madrid who helped women in her situation, she met with Gómez Valbuena, and then, entering the clinic once she went into labor, called on her again. "After the delivery she told me my daughter had died," Torres told the press. "Then she said that the baby had been given to another family. And she threatened me that if I didn't go along with it, she would tell the authorities that I was an adulteress, and they would take away my other child as well."

On Friday, the adoptive father of the daughter that Torres gave away testified that he and his wife had paid Gómez Valbuena for their daughter, though at the time, he thought he was merely paying the expenses of a young woman in trouble. "Sister María was a very strong woman. I see her now, and I don't recognize her. She was a terribly cold woman, but I was immensely grateful to her because she gave me a daughter."

By way of denial, Gómez Valbuena issued a public letter the same day she appeared in court, stating that the idea of separating a child from his or her biological mother was "repugnant" to her. Although she remains under judicial investigation, without corroborating proof that she did indeed coerce Torres into giving up her child, there is little chance that she — or any of the other doctors, nurses, nuns and priests purportedly involved in these cases — will be prosecuted.

Asked how she feels about Thursday's proceedings, Inés Madrigal answers with a single word: "Indignant." The 42-year-old railway worker learned that something was amiss in her own adoption when she saw her adoption papers and realized they had been falsified. The doctor who delivered her at Santa Cristina was apparently one with whom Gómez Valbuena frequently worked, and she is outraged by what she calls the nun's "tremendous cynicism." Like many other Spaniards who now suspect they were sold as babies, she has undergone DNA testing and is trying as best she can to locate her birth mother. "We've had to become detectives," Madrigal says, "Combing the civil registries, digging up graves. I know that something was wrong about my adoption because I feel it. But the law is very cold when it comes to feelings."