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Spain’s Rhodes Law Seeks to Prevent Child Abuse

Following a spate of cases, this new law promises to reform old policies while creating new protections, aimed at preventing the mistreatment of children

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On February 10th, Spain’s Unidas Podemos leader and Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias of the new coalition government announced that the Social Rights Ministry had prepared its first piece of legislation: the Rhodes Law.

The law promises modernised approaches to abuse, including easier and more appropriate mechanisms for children to report and testify against abusers. It will also extend the statute of limitations, with crimes now expiring at age 45, and put emphasis on education and preventative measures.

Iglesias promises that it will not just protect “the boys and girls in this country, but should also be a global point of reference for the protection of childhood and adolescence and should become one of the elements that defines the actions of this government”.

The law is named after James Rhodes, a British concert pianist and public figure who is also a resident of Madrid. The artist has lived in Spain since 2017, and while he waxes poetic about much of the country, he has also taken issue with the widespread abuse of children. Part of his passion for change stems from his own traumatic past – one that he wrote about in an autobiography and released following a legal battle that involved an injunction on its publication.

He tells the BBC about living in Spain, “[T]here was this one thing I could not reconcile, and it was that every week there was another story of child rape, child abuse, not just in the Church, but in schools and families.” The legal system in Spain is “centuries out of date”, says Rhodes, noting that children are required to testify in court against their abuser, occasionally right in front of this person.

The pianist campaigned in favour of children’s rights for the last two years, beginning with a message to Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in 2018. Though Sánchez promised action, this legislation was quickly eclipsed by other pressures on the government, including Catalonia’s push for independence and a constant cycle of political instability.

But Rhodes was not deterred. He took to his social media and appeared in Spanish news, and in early February, Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias decided to take this on as a priority for the coalition government. Iglesias says that Rhodes “has brought valuable content to the law and could be an ambassador in the fight for the defence of rights during childhood the world over”.

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The new piece of legislation is named after British pianist and writer James Rhodes, who has campaigned for children’s rights for the last two years, taking to social media and Spanish news to get his message across. Part of his passion for change stems from his own traumatic and abusive childhood. Copyright: Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com

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A History of Abuse in Spain

Following the announcement of the law, Rhodes tweeted, “I am aware that ‘Rhodes Law’ is trending [on Twitter]…Please, let us remember what the law is about, how urgent it is and the shameful situation of the boys and girls who were raped in Mallorca. There is a lot of work to do.”

This mention, and much of the urgency behind Rhodes’ work, stems from a report released by the register of child mistreatment (RUMI), which revealed that there were 4,417 known cases of child abuse in the Balearic islands in 2018. This is an increase from 1,563 notifications of abuse in 2014; the rise could be, in part, attributed to difficult and prohibitive processes.

There are more concrete cases of abuse to look into; in January 2020 a separate report indicated that five employees at three different juvenile detention centres were fired for abuses towards minors. One occurred in 2016, with two in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Social Services Minister Fina Santiago told the Majorca Daily Bulletin, “We have evidence of five cases in which inappropriate behaviours of workers with minors has been detected, although none of them have had complete sexual relations according to the statements made by the victims.”

She went on to say that all five employees had been fired and stressed that “under no circumstances will inappropriate behaviour be allowed by professionals working in the centres managed by the Government”.

Older cases are only now coming to light. Fifty-two-year-old Emiliano Álvarez suffered abuse at the hands of staff from La Bañeza’s Seminario Menor boarding school beginning at age eleven, and highlighted some of these horrors in an interview with BBC.

A 1995 study from Salamanca University reports that one in five adults surveyed had been sexually abused when they were young. Author Juan Ignacio Cortés wrote about paedophilia and the church in Spain, saying that many cases are never taken seriously and leave victims with the sense that their well-being doesn’t matter – a sentiment that extends beyond religious contexts. “They complain about ridiculous sentences for abusers and are left feeling rejected and humiliated”, Cortés told the BBC.

Save the Children’s Director General in Spain, Andrés Conde, agrees that this is a huge problem that needs addressing in the country. Conde also spoke to the BBC, saying “It is becoming clearer every day that Spain has an enormous problem with violence against children, and specifically with sexual abuse against boys, girls, and adolescents. Politicians cannot continue to look the other way”.

Political Pressure and Motives

It is important to note that the social importance of this law has been mired in controversy, with Rhodes himself admitting it has “become a political football”.

Spain’s conservative opposition parties believe Iglesias’ move is hypocritical and meant to cover for Balearic Island allies in regional parliament who were accused of prostituting minors. Partido Popular politician Margarita Prohens told Congress that Iglesias and other ministers were “fighting among themselves to put a name to the child protection reform” and simultaneously “protecting members of the administration in charge of those girls because they are from the left”.

The new coalition government faces intense scrutiny from centre-right and far-right parties such as Vox and Partido Popular, and is often charged with wanting to “break Spain’s unity”. But Iglesias has nevertheless persevered, and it is likely that he won’t just stop at Rhodes Law.

He has expressed interest in tackling social issues like rape legislation and euthanasia, repealing the country’s gag law, banning public praising of former dictator Francisco Franco, and working to expand Spain’s historical memory. But if the Deputy Prime Minister is not able to pass Rhodes Law, he may struggle to get remaining pieces of legislation passed as Spain’s trend of politics trumping social change continues on.

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Katherine Whittaker

Katherine is an Athens-based writer and videographer. Formerly the digital editor at SAVEUR Magazine, she now freelances, focusing mostly on the intersection of food and politics or culture. She earned a dual Masters degree in journalism and European studies from New York University.

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