By Ann Cahill, Europe Correspondent
THOUSANDS of babies disappeared over a 40-year period in Spain, stolen from their mothers and handed over for adoption by the state and the Catholic Church.
Gradually over the past few months the story of these stolen babies — it could be as many as 300,000 — has emerged and with it more details of how such a momentous crime could be carried out.
As hundreds of people call for an investigation and many suspect they may be one of the children kidnapped at birth, it seems they may never find out the truth — at least not officially.
Spain had one of the most vicious civil wars in Europe but the atrocities continued long after as the victor, Francisco Franco, maintained and strengthened his hold on the country.
In 1940 he legalised taking babies from their parents if their "moral education" was at risk.
In Franco’s Spain this meant any parent whose social, political and religious views did not coincide with his.
Many of these children had parents who were jailed for their leftist political leanings.
The babies were usually put into Catholic orphanages and many went on to become nuns or priests or were adopted, often illegally.
However, when Spain became a democracy after Franco’s death and the law was revoked, the despicable practice continued. This time the babies were not forcibly taken from their parents, but stolen and sold to couples looking to adopt children.
It was a well thought-out operation that involved the collusion of a considerable number of people, particularly in hospitals. Mothers not from the area, and especially if they were poor, were the main targets.
They were told their babies had died and the hospital would take care of the arrangements. Later searches of cemeteries by families revealed no records of births or deaths and undertakers have since revealed the practice of burying little empty coffins.
The well-known Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon raised the issue of the Franco regime’s baby thefts two years ago when he estimated 30,000 babies were involved.
He is known for trying to have the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet extradited for crimes against humanity and for investigating the execution and disappearance of more than 100,000 Republicans — the losing side in the Spanish civil war
He was prevented from pursuing this under legislation introduced in 1977 declaring an amnesty for all those who committed atrocities during and in the years after the 1936-1939 civil war.
As Spain emerged from 30 years of brutal dictatorship, the politicians who battled against the extremists and the army to introduce democracy decided the best option was to let bygones be bygones.
It has worked to an amazing degree but if you ask enough questions of thoughtful Spaniards they display a deep understanding of their past and the difficulty of keeping it in the past.
In the last few days Spain’s attorney general has ruled there will be no national investigation into the stolen babies. Instead each person will have to pursue his or her own case at local level in an attempt to prevent any national outrage.
One town, La Línea in the southern region of Andalucia, has opened an investigation on foot of complaints by six families about babies disappearing from three clinics in the town.
An organisation, Anadir, has been set up by Antonio Barroso who suspects he was stolen and illegally adopted, and they are taking cases to the courts in a number of regions.
A Basque prosecutor is opening an investigation following a complaint by a woman who thrown out by her family when she became pregnant in the 1980s. She says she was pressurised by a Catholic priest into giving up her baby for adoption — a case that would find resonance in the Ireland of that time.
[This appeared in the printed version of The Irish Examiner Monday, February 07, 2011]