Spanish bishops apologise for silence over killings

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Spanish bishops broke decades of silence at the weekend to apologise for the killing of 14 priests by Francisco Franco’s troops during the civil war, asking forgiveness for the church’s collusion with the dictator’s cause

The bishop of Vitoria celebrated a memorial service in the cathedral of the Basque regional capital yesterday to mark the execution 73 years ago by Francoist troops of 14 priests who had never received a funeral, and whose deaths were never officially recorded.

"The silence with which officials of our Church surrounded the deaths of these priests is not justifiable nor acceptable for much longer," Bishop Miguel Asurmendi said during the service that was attended by two other bishops and 200 priests. "Such a long silence was not only a wrongful omission, but a lack of truth and an act against justice and charity, for which we ask pardon," the bishop added.

The apology is unprecedented. Spain’s ecclesiastical hierarchy supported Francisco Franco from the moment the civil war broke out in 1936. It never wavered in its support for his 40-year dictatorship, and uttered no word of remorse during more than three decades of democracy that followed the generalissimo’s death in 1975.

The priests, killed in 1936 and 1937, had been officially forgotten. The "painful circumstances" surrounding their deaths were unknown, Bishop Asurmendi said, but "testimony from many of their parishioners and companions indicates they were seized while they carried out their duties. For years their names were relegated to silence.” Two of the priests were known to have been shot.

The service was attended by the bishops of Bilbao and San Sebastian, 200 priests, family members of the priests who died, and representatives of the regional Basque government. Andoni Lekuona, nephew of one of the 14, said from the pulpit that he “didn’t even know where his uncle’s remains were.”

Historians believe several thousand priests, monks and nuns were killed by defenders of the Spanish republic against Franco’s troops, in a bloody three-year conflict that caused up to half a million deaths. Many Spaniards were passionately anti-clerical, regarding priests as upholders of the rich and powerful in a brutally unequal society.

Franco ruled with what the historian Paul Preston called “vengeful cruelty” for 40 years after his victory in 1939, during which his regime, his bishops, cardinals and local parish priests, honoured their own dead in extravagant ceremonies. But they expunged the memory of tens of thousands of opponents who still lie in the unmarked graves where they were tossed after pre-dawn executions.

Spain’s recent history abounds with priests who took the side of their parishioners, protecting many from Franco’s reprisals. But Saturday’s historic memorial service is the first gesture of recognition for Franco’s victims from the catholic high command. It is also a gesture of defiance against to an act of defiance against Spain’s catholic strong man, the ultra-conservative Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, Archbishop of Madrid.

Collaborators: The caudillo and the clerics

Franco’s rule was closely entwined with Spain’s Catholic Church. On his victory in 1939, in token of his loyalty, he handed his “sword of victory” to Archbishop Goma of Toledo, Primate of all Spain, who blessed him, then laid the sword on the altar of Madrid’s Santa Barbara basilica.

The church hailed the dumpy general as their hero, and Franco called his endless campaign against opponents a “crusade”, and his official ideology “national catholicism”. He saw the church as legitimising his divine purpose, and cultivated the impression that he and the hierarchy were totally at one with each other.

Franco presided over elaborate religious ceremonies laden with medieval overtones, declaring “the history of our nation is inseparably linked to the history of the Catholic Church, its glories are our glories, its enemies our enemies.” Hundreds of thousands of the faithful gave hysterical support, providing a useful cover for savage repression.

Pope Pius XII hailed Franco as “our beloved son”, and gave him the Vatican’s highest award, the Supreme Order of Christ. This extravaganza of mutual admiration has left an onerous legacy.