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A dark chapter in Spain's recent history is being revived. It involves the disappearance of babies. There's evidence that a secret network of doctors and nuns stole newborns for more than four decades and sold them for adoption. The practice allegedly began during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports more than 1,000 people have gone to court hoping to track down sons and daughters or brothers and sisters they were told died at childbirth.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In Madrid's Puerta el Sol, Antonio Iniesta stands next to a poster with the words bebes robados - stolen babies. He's here to publicize his search for a brother he's convinced is alive. He tracked down his mother's 1957 hospital record and shows its conflicting hand-written remarks. One says a male child was stillborn. The other refers his family's so-called social distortion.
ANTONIO INIESTA: (Through translator) Social distortion means a state of poverty that can damage the physical and emotional well-being of the child.
POGGIOLI: Iniesta says his family was very poor. The theft of newborns began with the Franco dictatorship in 1939. It came to light three years ago when Judge Baltasar Garzon probed the abduction of children taken forcibly from women imprisoned because they were leftists. He estimated that by 1950 the number had reached 30,000. Journalist Natalia Junquera says the baby theft was an attempt at social engineering by a psychiatrist, Antonio Vallejo-Najera, trained in Germany in the 1930s.
NATALIA JUNQUERA: Who said these women were dangerous because those women had inside the seeds of Marxism, and if those children remained with their mothers the Marxism will grow in those children.
POGGIOLI: The system outlived Franco's death and continued at least through the 1980s. Some estimates put the total as high as 300,000 stolen babies. The guiding principle was that the child would be better off raised by an affluent, conservative and devout Catholic family that would also pay up to $25,000 at today's rates.
JUNQUERA: To steal a baby you needed a doctor willing to do it and also a nun. They were acting like they were gods, deciding who deserved a child and who didn't.
POGGIOLI: One of the few nuns to speak publicly is Sister Josefa Garcia Veiga, director of Barcelona's Santa Isabel residence for single women. Interviewed for a TV documentary, she denies babies were forcibly taken from their mothers. She says she's bound by an oath and cannot hand over medical records that could help one woman trace her biological mother to help treat a rare hereditary disease.
SISTER JOSEFA GARCIA VEIGA: (Through translator) I cannot reveal anything. We cannot break a pact made with the mother even for health reasons.
POGGIOLI: The first formal charges against one nun have been filed.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
POGGIOLI: Outside a Madrid courthouse, a crowd of women. Many shout: Where is my child? Inside, an investigating magistrate hears testimony in the case of 80-year-old Sister Maria Gomez. She denies charges of involvement in the 1982 disappearance of Pilar Alcalde. Alcalde was reunited with her mother last year thanks to Facebook and lots of luck. Her case opened the floodgates. Memories of strange behavior in maternity wards re-resurfaced. Families became detectives.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)
POGGIOLI: Radio Encontreremos - We Will Meet - is dedicated to stolen children. As more and more listeners call in to tell their stories, a pattern emerges - poor women, often unmarried, mothers not allowed to see their newborns, and many graves exhumed but empty, no coffins. The radio was founded by Vicente Olaya, a business reporter at the daily El Pais. His mother, like many others, never believed her baby girl died at birth.
VICENTE OLAYA: My sister died in the hospital, but my mother never saw her. It's very amazing, because there is no body. There is no tomb of my sister. There is no archive, because they say the nuns destroyed all the archives in '80s.
POGGIOLI: That's the biggest challenge in the search for long-lost relatives: Many hospital records have been destroyed. And until 1970, parents could register adopted children as their own. The first adoption law wasn't passed until 1987, so it's very hard to find one's biological mother.
Eduardo Estaban Rincon is the Madrid prosecutor handling some 300 cases of alleged stolen babies.
EDUARDO ESTABAN RINCON: (Through Translator) Time is our biggest enemy and we're as frustrated as those looking for missing relatives.
POGGIOLI: The more than 20 associations seeking stolen children have joined forces under the heading, They Are All Our Children. The umbrella group is not only seeking justice but also wants to set straight a long-hidden historical record.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Madrid.