“When you’re inside you don’t realize how real it is.” Ismael (not his real name) spent seven years at the Tenerife Diocesan Seminary when he was a child. This center temporarily closed after a case of sexual abuse of a minor under 13 years of age by a distributor, who fulfilled the function of helping to train students, came to light in 2019. In an exclusive interview with Cadena SER, Ismael recounted how he experienced the abuses that were hidden behind those walls in this Church resource located in La Laguna. “Some distributors took advantage of when the minors were sick to go to their rooms and brush them over the top of the sheet or give them kisses,” he said.
A former assistant to the Diocesan Seminary of Tenerife, sentenced to two years in prison for sexually abusing a minor
In this Tenerife Seminary, the Major and Minor Seminary are mixed, which forces children and adults to live together. “The distributaries were the closest to us. We had a trainer who took care of us above them, but due to their proximity in age, they were the ones who were most aware of us”, assured Ismael.
On March 8, 2021, the Provincial Court of Santa Cruz de Tenerife sentenced a distributor of this seminary to two years in prison for sexually abusing a child. The sentence has been appealed and is not yet final. In the proven facts, the document states that the accused was 21 years old when he abused the victim, who was 13. “He was an assistant to the trainers for three courses. His dormitory was in the Minor Seminary, near the dormitories for the minor boarders”.
The defendant took advantage of moments in which he was alone with his victim, “as in the bedroom of one of them or in the office”, to convince him that there were passages in the Gospel that defended homosexuality. At a party in a parish, the distributario began to caress the minor’s back and when he returned to the Seminary he asked him if he wanted to give him a kiss. Since that day, the investigated sent notes to the child “repeatedly” inside a book, by hand or under the door. In them, he asked her if she wanted to have oral sex with him. The minor refused.
On another occasion, the minor accompanied the defendant to the laundry. He grabbed her hand “and placed it on his erect penis over his clothes.” “The defendant tried to touch the genitals of the minor, but he moved away,” describes the sentence. Harassment also continued through the Internet. In 2018, the adult, through the Messenger social network, sent the minor a photo of his genitals accompanied by an insinuation to give him fellatio.
Although the Prosecutor’s Office requested 18 years in prison for the seminarian for three cases of sexual abuse, the Provincial Court only considered one of the three accredited and acquitted him of the other two. This is one of the two cases that the Superior Prosecutor’s Office of the Canary Islands transferred to the State Prosecutor’s Office when the latter asked the autonomies to send it all the complaints and complaints in process regarding assaults and sexual abuse of minors in religious institutions.
In the interview with Cadena SER, Ismael stresses that “until there were exchanges of messages with explicit content” that could show that these crimes were being committed, “no action was taken.” “It was allowed,” says the former seminarian. The person who brought these facts to justice was the Bishop of Tenerife, Bernando Álvarez Afonso.
This year, Álvarez generated a strong controversy by calling homosexuality a “mortal sin.” After these statements, the LGTBI Diversas association recalled that in 2007 the bishop “justified” the sexual abuse of minors by saying that “there are children who provoke.” According to Ismael, the bishop “knew what was happening” and what he did was “change the formators.”
The Bishopric of Tenerife has recognized this case of sexual abuse detected in 2018 and has encouraged anyone who is a victim or aware of a situation of this type in the Church to report it.
Guilt, depression and self-harm
“They took advantage of their authority, but you didn’t share it with anyone. You do not make it public for what they will say. When you leave the institution everything throws you off, you think you were about to be a victim”. The sentence that convicted the distributario in 2021 highlights the “undoubted seriousness” of this type of crime that “not only harms the sexual indemnity of minors”, but also affects the development and formation of their personality and sexuality.
The consequences for people who suffer abuse in childhood go through depression, anxiety, difficulties in relating to their partners, self-esteem conflicts, self-harm, emotional management problems, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and even suicide. The psychologist Dolores Merlino explains that in these crimes there is manipulation by the adult on the minor, which increases if it is a known person.
“If he is part of the family or the environment, he gains the trust of the minor, sometimes resorting to emotional blackmail. They make them see that what they are doing is not bad or they even consider it as if it were something even special with phrases like “it’s our secret” or “this is between you and me”, says the expert.
In these contexts, “guilt and shame” appear in the survivors. When minors are afraid to speak up, adults need to be on the lookout for signs that the child has been abused. Wetting the bed is an indicator of fear. Other signs are insomnia, the fear of being alone in a room or the refusal to go to the spaces where the abuser is. “Sometimes they say that they no longer want to go to training, to their grandfather’s house or to catechism,” Merlino exemplifies.
Dolores Merlino is a specialist in the EDMR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) technique. This tool treats emotional difficulties caused by difficult or traumatic experiences in the past. “There are people who can erase everything from their mind and who silence it forever. I always say that the shared backpack weighs less”, points out the psychologist. However, for survivors of childhood abuse to be able to speak out safely, they need a safe environment where they do not feel judged.
“Many times they think they are bad people or that they had to do something to avoid it, but you have to work so that they know that they are the victims,” he stresses. For her, the fundamental thing is to “give hope”. “There are circumstances that are irreparable, but you have to offer them a future.”