Did a Spanish nun steal thousands of newborns?

Thousands of Spanish mothers have similar stories of stolen children. (AFP/Getty Images)</p>

Thousands of Spanish mothers have similar stories of stolen children. (AFP/Getty Images)

BARCELONA, Spain — "Where is my baby?" Luisa Torres wondered after waking up from general anesthesia on March 31, 1982.

"Your baby is dead," Sister Maria Gómez Valbuena told her as she lay in bed at the Santa Cristina Maternity Hospital in Madrid. “You gave birth to nothing,” the nun said.

It was a lie, with consequences that would span almost three decades.

Torres alleges that her daughter was stolen at birth by a mafia of nuns, doctors and other officials who sold children for profit.

Thousands of Spanish mothers recount similar stories. Enrique Vila, a Barcelona lawyer who specializes in adoptions, estimates there might be as many as 300,000 cases, about 15 percent of total adoptions that took place in Spain between 1960 and 1989.

Since GlobalPost first wrote about the spate of stolen babies last year, the number of cases being handled by Spanish prosecutors has jumped from 900 to 1,500.

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A trickle of complaints began decades ago, but turned into a flood two years ago. But the nun, now in her 80s and known as Sister Maria, is the first to be indicted in the scandal since complaints began to pour in two years ago. Her trial begins today, April 3.

About one-quarter of the cases have been dismissed due to a lack of documents or other evidence, which is often hard to provide when decades-old birth certificates have been forged, or when the parents and children haven't yet found each other.

Torres and her daughter are just one of a dozen who have, and it is their reunion that has led to the first indictment.

'Like a horror film'

Like hundreds of mothers who believe their babies had been stolen at Santa Cristina Maternity Hospital, Torres met Sister Maria, a social worker, in her fifth month of pregnancy after seeing an ad in a magazine offering help for expectant mothers in need.

“It said she had access to nurseries and foster homes, and that she would take care of the children until we had enough resources to take care of them by ourselves,” Torres recalled. “I went to see her with my mom and she was very nice — we didn't suspect anything.” She said she was given a “special card” to show at the hospital when going into labor.

But it became "like a horror film,” she added.

After first saying that the baby girl was dead, Sister Maria changed her story, Torres said. The nun admitted that the child was alive, and told the 24-year-old woman that she would give the child up for adoption to a French family. She implied that Torres, who had given birth out of wedlock, would be an unfit mother.

And she told Torres, who wanted to name her child Sheila, that such a name was not "Christian," and that the baby girl would be called Maria, “after herself.”

Torres said she became increasingly hysterical, and began cursing at the nun. She climbed from her bed and stumbled to the neo-natal unit. There, one girl lay in an incubator with a name tag on her crib: Maria.

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“You saw nothing," the nun told her. Sister Maria dragged Torres back to her room and threw her onto her bed, Torres said. "I will report you to the authorities as an adulteress and you will go to jail. Then I will also take away your 2-year-old daughter,” said Sister Maria, according to Torres.

Torres says she was terrified. Inés, her first child, was the result of a failed marriage. Separated from her husband, she started a new relationship, but that man left her once she became pregnant. In a country that was still waking up from a 40-year dictatorship and was extremely socially conservative, Torres didn't know that anti-adultery laws had already been repealed in 1978.

Her new child had been born slightly premature, at eight months, and had some health problems. The infant was taken to another floor to receive special care, and Torres wasn't allowed to visit her because she had never been officially identified as the child’s mother. She lost track of her baby, and was too afraid to approach Sister Maria again.

A devastated Torres left the hospital nine days later “with empty arms,” and the pacifier and baby blanket she had bought for her baby Sheila. She kept them for almost three decades, never losing hope that she could one day give them to her.

Obsessed for three decades

Months before Torres’ daughter was born, Alejandro Alcalde and his wife learned they could not have children and began considering adoption. But the adoption process was difficult. They had almost lost hope until they were told by Madrid’s regional council, which handled adoptions, to contact a woman named Sister Maria.

The adoptive parents paid 200,000 pesetas for Maria Pilar — the equivalent of about $6,600 today. The nun told them it was for hospital costs and for the mother to stay at a home after the birth. They arranged everything at a public hospital, which was why Alejandro Alcalde says they were never suspicious.

Maria Pilar Alcalde, now 30, recounts how she had looked for her biological mother since she was 15 years old, when her adoptive parents divorced.

“I spent nights crying, looking at my adoption documents over and over, trying to see a way to find my mother,” said Maria Pilar, who says she had a very “lonely childhood.” She described her adoptive mother as “a very dry woman” and said that her adoptive relatives never made her part of the family.

“I always missed that love in families," she said. "When I was a teenager, I used to wonder: ‘How will my real family be?’”

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After her parents’ divorce, Maria Pilar lived with her adoptive father, who helped her hunt for her mother. He spent a fortune on detectives and lawyers. Seven years ago, they appeared together on El Diario TV talk show, where they told Maria Pilar's story. But it resulted in no leads.

“If my father thought he had been involved in anything illegal, he would have never helped so much in my search,” Maria Pilar said. Her adoptive mother, with whom she has a distant relationship, never liked the fact that Maria Pilar wanted to look for her biological parents.

At the beginning of their search, Maria Pilar and her father even went to see Sister Maria, who had kept in touch with the adoptive parents over the years. “I swore to God in front of your mother that I would never reveal her identity,” she told Maria Pilar. “She was probably a drug addict or a prostitute, it would only hurt you to find her.”

Ten miles away, Torres mourned her little girl.

“I was obsessed for 30 years…I used to stare at babies on the street when [my daughter] would still have been a baby, at young couples when she was still a teenager…sadness was always with me, especially on her birthdays,” Torres recalls, shaken at the memories.

Afraid that her other daughter would be taken away from her, Torres didn’t do much for years. She also didn't know where to begin looking. According to Spanish privacy laws, parents who give their children up for adoption don't have the right to get information about their whereabouts or new identities.

A year-and-a-half ago, when other "stolen babies" cases started appearing in the media, Torres says her determination to find her missing child was renewed. Her oldest daughter, Inés, eventually told the story to Spanish daily El Mundo.

Soon after the story appeared, a journalist at Antena 3 recalled the appearance of Alejandro and Maria Pilar on El Diario show seven years before, and realized that Maria Pilar and Torres' stories matched. She dug into the matter. Eventually, she managed to contact both parties.

An "unbelievable" moment

On June 30, 2011, Torres, 54, and Maria Pilar, were brought on El Diario TV show after having had their DNA tested. They had been at the studio the entire day prior to the appearance, being interviewed separately, never crossing paths. They sat tense on the set until the TV host read out the result of their DNA test results on air: It was a match. 

As they threw themselves at each other, Torres repeatedly murmured through tears, “I love you, forgive me." Her daughter, sobbing, replied: "I have nothing to forgive.”

Many months later, they recall that pivotal moment as if it were yesterday.

“I almost fainted, my legs buckled. …It was a very beautiful and happy day, but too intense,” Torres said.

“I just threw myself in her arms,” said Maria Pilar. “I still cannot believe it.”

Still, settling into the reunion has taken time.

“I look at my mother and at the physical warmth she has with my sisters, and I wish it could be the same [closeness and naturalness] with me,” said Maria Pilar, who says it is still “strange” for them to be around each other.

Even so, she says she now has a "mom," two “wonderful” half-sisters, two nephews and “a loving grandmother” she is getting to know and love.

Day of reckoning

Hundreds of women have named Sister Maria as the woman involved in the theft of their babies. The nun dealt with about 3,000 adoptions per year between 1967 and 1983, says Guillermo Peñas, the lawyer who represents Torres and Maria Pilar as well as 50 other families as plaintiffs.

Her name was first linked to the theft of babies in 1982, when investigative magazine Interviú uncovered several cases at another clinic in Madrid where Sister Maria used to work. Authorities closed the clinic down, but no one was prosecuted then.

The reunion of Torres and Maria Pilar offers the first mother-and-child pair who can accuse an alleged abductor, and have made it possible to indict the nun. She is currently charged with illegal detention, fraudulently faking another's pregnancy, forgery of public and private documents, threatening behavior and coercion, according to Peñas.

So far, Sister Maria hasn’t responded to the prosecutor’s charges in court. GlobalPost’s attempts to reach Sister Maria for a comment were unsuccessful.
The public prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the case.

Torres and Maria Pilar will first appear in front of the judge on April 3.

“This is a very important step because it [is taking on the Church] – [Sister Maria] represents the Church, and that is sacred in Spain,” said Flor Diaz, one of the representatives of SOS Stolen Babies, a support organization that Torres also belongs to.

Both Maria Pilar and Torres say that no matter what happens in the courts, they will never be able to recover the 30 years they lost. “I want that nun to pay for all the pain she has caused,” said Torres.

But at her age, it is unlikely that Sister Maria will end up behind bars.

“There have to be many more people involved,” said Peñas. “It is a matter of common sense to realize that a social worker does not have enough legal authority to do whatever she wants — she had superiors and the hospital director had to authorize the adoptions in the end.”

“But Sister Maria is the only thread we have to untangle the tangled web,” he added.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s newly installed minister of justice, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, said last week that resolving these cases “will be a priority” for his department, although advocates in the case are skeptical.

“For the government, this is like holding a screaming child,” said Peñas. “If it is held that civil authorities were in the end responsible, the state will have to compensate [thousands of families], and these are not the best times for that.”

But most of these mothers and their children, like Maria Pilar and Torres, say they don’t want any money, just to find their loved ones and recover the lost time.

As they work on that, Maria Pilar keeps the still-new pacifier and the baby blanket on her bed. In the days that followed her first meeting with her mother, she says she would fall asleep “like a baby,” grabbing onto them.

While that phase has passed, Maria Pilar says she plans to get a tattoo with her mother’s name — her way to make sure that Torres is never far from her again.