BARCELONA (Spain): A Barcelona court sentenced Monday a former gym teacher at a Catholic school to over 20 years in jail for sexually assaulting students, in the latest abuse scandal rocking the church in Spain.
Joaquin Benitez, who taught for nearly three decades at a Barcelona school run by the Marist community, a Roman Catholic order at the centre of a clerical abuse scandal in Chile, got a jail term of 21 years and nine months for assaulting four students.
The court also ordered Benitez to pay the victims a total of 120,000 euros ($134,000). This is the first sentence since public accusations of abuse against Benitez in 2016 triggered a cascade of other complaints at two other Marist schools in Barcelona.
The ruling comes amid sustained criticism of the Vatican's response to a decades-long sexual abuse crisis. The court said Benitez had an office with a bed "where he took students to give massages and treat injuries."
His victims described behind closed doors at the trial in March how Benitez would summon them to his office and sexually abuse them. Benitez apologised to his victims as he left the court after the first day of the proceedings, justifying his behaviour by the fact that he himself had suffered sexual abuse as a student at Catholic boarding school.
"Instinctively I saw it as practically normal behaviour," Benitez, who wore a black ski mask to cover his face from the media, told reporters.
The alleged abuse took place between the early 1980s and 2010. Thirteen other former students at the school also accused Benitez of sexual abuse but their cases could not go to trial because the alleged crimes happened too long ago.
Under Spanish law, the statute of limitations for cases of child sexual abuse starts to run from the moment the victim reaches the age of 18.
Spain's Socialist government has introduced a draft law to raise that age to 30. It also proposes a statute of limitations of 10-20 years depending on the seriousness of the offence. This would mean that crime reported when a victim is middle-aged could still proceed to court.
Questioned in court, a senior Marist official denied trying to cover up the abuses.
The Marists were at the centre of a major clerical abuse scandal that erupted in Chile in 2017 and led to the resignation of 34 bishops in the Latin American country.
Spain, historically a fervently Catholic country, has been less affected by clerical abuse scandals, but a rising number of accusations against priests in schools and seminaries is starting to erode the wall of silence.
Activists say many cases had likely been silenced as they were in other countries and could emerge now as the debate opens up.