An elderly Spanish nun appeared in court on Thursday to face charges of stealing babies, after claims by hundreds of women that their infants were taken from them at birth and given away in illegal adoptions.
Doctors, nurses and religious workers at several clinics and hospitals in Spain are alleged to have sold babies for adoption over decades, after telling new mothers that their infants had died.
At the hearing at Madrid's Superior Tribunal of Justice, Maria Gomez Valbuena, a Sisters of Charity nun now in her 80s who once worked in the Santa Cristina hospital in Madrid, became the first person accused in the widening scandal.
Clad in a dark habit, she was questioned by a judge but invoked her right not to testify.
The formal charges against her are of illegal detention and falsifying documents in a case dating from the early 1980s.
A crowd of mothers who say they were robbed of their babies shouted shameless at the grim-faced nun as she was escorted out of the court through a throng of journalists to a car.
An association of parents and families, Anadir, has presented more than 900 lawsuits alleging child-stealing. Most have been thrown out due to lack of evidence.
Many mothers say they were told by health or religious workers their babies had died at birth or shortly after, but were neither shown a body nor given a proper death certificate.
Anadir says the practice began in the 1940s when, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the fascist government stole babies from political prisoners from the defeated Republican side.
In subsequent decades it became a money-making racket, the victims claim. Parents who wanted to adopt babies were often referred to clinics that were known for finding babies for desperate families.
Many of the mothers have said they believe their babies were taken due to a mistaken paternalism on the part of the doctors or religious workers who may have seen them as unfit mothers because they were young, poor or unmarried.
JAIL FOR ADULTERY
One mother testified in court last week that Gomez Valbuena had told her she could be jailed for adultery. The nun threatened to take her baby away and give it to another family, and later said the baby had died.
The mother, Maria Luisa Torres, has been able to prove through DNA tests the baby she was told had died 30 years ago is alive after being adopted by another family.
I only hope there will be justice after so much suffering, Torres said last week after testifying in court.
Many other mothers have found it impossible to track down babies they believe would now be adults, since the birth records, death certificates and adoption papers were falsified, according to Anadir and to the Madrid prosecutor.
Alleged victims say they need help from authorities in unearthing evidence of their claims from graveyards and public registries.
The government will not fail in its duty. We share the pain of the victims and we will go as far as we can, said Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon after meeting representatives of associations representing people who say their babies were stolen.
The Ministry of Justice says it will gather the facts about all of the different claims to be able to investigate them more systematically, and will also handle the results of DNA tests.
(Additional reporting by Blanca Rodriguez; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Andrew Roche)