British pianist James Rhodes drives child abuse reform in Spain

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James Rhodes: "There is toxic shame that does not finish"

Spain is about to completely overhaul its system of protection against child sexual abuse, largely thanks to a campaign by British pianist and Madrid resident James Rhodes.

Mr Rhodes, who has written about being repeatedly raped by a teacher as a London schoolboy, is proud that his contacts with the left-wing government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and other parties appear to be on the verge of culminating in a law he says will become a "global benchmark" for child protection.

But he is also counting the personal cost of becoming an actor on Spain's turbulent political stage, where not even a law on child abuse is immune from virulent battles between left and right.

Mr Rhodes, 44, moved to Spain in 2017, and says he immediately fell in love with the country's beauty, culture and language.

"But there 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," he told the BBC in his Madrid apartment.

What upset him most was that victims in Spain are let down by a legal system he describes as "centuries out of date", and which requires children to give testimony on multiple occasions in courtrooms and even in the presence of their abuser.

Mr Rhodes contacted Prime Minister Sánchez in 2018, and the Socialist Party leader promised to take action. But amid tension over Catalonia's bid for independence and political instability leading to short-lived parliaments, no progress was made.

Mr Rhodes used social media and Spanish press and television to press his case until Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias, of the Podemos party, announced earlier this month that the Rhodes Law would be one of the new left-wing coalition government's first reforms.

"This law must not only protect boys and girls in our country, but also become a global reference for child protection," Mr Iglesias said.

Image source, Reuters
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Pablo Iglesias announced the government's support for the Rhodes Law in February

As well as making it easier for children to report abuse and only having to testify once before a specialised judge, the law will focus on prevention and education. It will also change the statute of limitations so that these crimes will not expire until 15 years after the victim is 30 years old, instead of counting from the age of 18.

The so-called Rhodes Law is just one of a number of social reforms promised by the Sánchez government, including consent-based legislation on rape and the legalisation of euthanasia.

But far from uniting Spaniards, these legal changes are coming to fruition in a poisonous political environment.

Conservative opposition Popular Party (PP) and far-right Vox have accused the government of hypocrisy and a cover-up after its left-wing allies in the Balearic Islands refused to back an investigation in the regional parliament into reports of minors in care being prostituted.

PP politician Margarita Prohens said in Congress on Tuesday that ministers like Mr Iglesias were "fighting among themselves to put a name to the child protection reform" while "protecting members of the administration in charge of those girls because they are from the left".

Image source, Getty Images
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Sexual violence is a major issue in Spain

Mr Rhodes is saddened to admit that the child protection law has "become a political football".

But he accuses those seeking to score points of forgetting the victims they claim to care so deeply about.

"If there is any issue all political parties could agree on, it's this one. And if that had been the case, it would have been passed months ago. Had anyone in Congress gone through what I went through, this would have been passed months ago."

While he regrets that the irony in some of his comments on social media has not been appreciated, such as when he described wanting to hit Vox leader Santiago Abascal with a chair, Mr Rhodes says changes that will help millions of children make the exposure more than worthwhile.

"I'm not a poster boy for child abuse. I'm a pianist. But I cannot say I want to be a citizen of this country, which I do, and look the other way when things are so barbaric."

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WATCH: Pianist James Rhodes says we need to talk more as a society about mental illness

Abuse cases 'tip of the iceberg'

According to Save the Children's latest report on Spain, 453 adults were convicted of sexually abusing or raping children below the age of 16 in 2018, an increase of 40% on the previous year. But Save the Children's director general in Spain, Andrés Conde, said these figures were merely the tip of an iceberg whose dimensions no one can calculate with any certainty.

"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," said Mr Conde.

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Pope Francis spoke out on abuse on a visit to Ireland in 2018

Meanwhile, Spain's Catholic Church authorities have failed to respond to Pope Francis's call for the church to deal with paedophiles amongst its ranks. Spain's Episcopal Conference announced it was upgrading its protocols on dealing with instances of abuse two years ago, but no progress has been reported.

According to a 2018 report by the newspaper El País covering the past three decades, Spanish criminal courts have found priests guilty of sexual assaults on 33 occasions involving 80 minors. El País also found that only three of Spain's 70 bishoprics had passed on information on cases of abuse to the country's criminal justice system.