In a letter addressed to an association supporting the Spanish Civil Guard, Pope Francis has reminded the Spanish bishops that it is up to them to sanction clerics who are found guilty of collusion with the Basque terrorist organization ETA.
The Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) organization was founded in 1959 with the goal of independence for the Basque Country. Ten years later, the structure—resolutely anti-Franco—radicalized and evolved into terrorism, until the end of its armed struggle in 2011 and its dissolution in 2018.
The question of the collusion of a number of clerics with this organization has often been raised in Spain. The latest twist was in October 2020.
On this date, a television documentary showed a priest, Fr. Mikel Azpeitia, then parish priest of Lemoa, a municipality located in the province of Biscay, denying that ETA was a terrorist group, and downplaying an attack which, in 1981, had cost the life of two members of the Spanish Civil Guard.
The Dignity and Justice Association (DyJ) then entered the fray, bringing an action in court against Fr. Azpeitia.
For his part, the Bishop of Bilbao, Msgr. Mario Iceta—since promoted to Archbishop of Burgos—relieved the parish priest of Lemoa of his charge, thereby provoking the ire of a group of Basque priests considering the sanction to be “disproportionate” relative to the facts against him.
The case caused enough noise in the north of Spain for Maria Begona Una Cantalapiedra, the president of the association of support to the Civil Guard (APROGC) to write a letter from the members to Pope Francis on December 15, denouncing the “deplorable behavior of a part of the Basque clergy,” and asking for a Roman intervention.
The answer came three months later, on March 9, 2021, through the channel of the nunciature: in a letter addressed to Begona Una Cantalapiedra, the nuncio, Msgr. Bernadito Auza, assures her of the “closeness and prayer of Holy Father with regard to all victims” of terrorism.
And Msgr. Auza added that the Roman pontiff was particularly insistent regarding the legal competence of the local Church in this kind of case: “it is the ordinary of the place who has competence in his territory to assess any infringement committed by a cleric.”
One way for Rome not to intervene directly in an explosive dossier which would be likely to interfere in the already tense relations between the Holy See and a Spanish government animated by a deep anticlericalism.
However, the pope’s position was welcomed by the APROGC which was quick to react on social networks: Begona Una Cantalapiedra, the president, thus expressed her “gratitude to the Pope for his response, thanking him for his closeness and understanding.”
They estimate the number of victims at more than 800—mainly police and military—killed by ETA bullets or bombs in just over 40 years of armed struggle.