An 80-year-old Spanish nun was jeered as she arrived in court, the first person to go before a judge over cases of babies allegedly stolen from their mothers during and after the Franco era.

13 Apr 2012 - 11:25 AM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

An 80-year-old Spanish nun was jeered as she arrived in court, the first person to go before a judge over cases of babies allegedly stolen from their mothers during and after the Franco era.

Sister Maria Gomez Valbuena went before a judge investigating her role in the kidnapping of a newborn girl from a Madrid hospital three decades ago, one of thousands of cases of alleged theft of babies by nuns, priests and doctors.

Wearing the blue habit of her Sisters of Charity order, she refused to testify and left the court accompanied by another nun from her convent as police shielded her from the crush of reporters.

She was called to give evidence in the case of Maria Luisa Torres, a mother who has accused the nun of stealing her daughter shortly after she was born at the Santa Cristina hospital in Madrid in March 1982.

Torres, 58, said that she accepted the nun's offer to temporarily look after her newborn daughter until her economic situation improved but that instead Sister Maria gave the baby away to another family.

"I was still half asleep when I asked her where my daughter was. She told me: 'Stop asking me that or else I will also take away your other daughter and you will go to jail for adultery'," Torres told AFP.

"She was a nun and I thought she was untouchable," she added when asked why she did not take action against Sister Maria at the time.

Torres was reunited with her daughter Pilar last year following an investigation by a journalist.

The nun has been charged with illegal detention and falsifying documents.

As Sister Maria arrived at the court escorted by police, a woman who believes she was kidnapped as a newborn from the Santa Cristina hospital in 1957 yelled at the black car transporting the nun.

"It is shameful, and on top of it all they protect her. I don't even know who I am," said 55-year-old Paloma Perez as the car drove by.

There are no firm figures for the number of children who were snatched from their mothers during General Francisco Franco's 1939-75 dictatorship and up to the end of the 1980s.

Estimates range from hundreds to tens of thousands of victims of a practice that began as a policy to remove children whose "moral education" was considered at risk and allegedly developed into financial trafficking.

New mothers were often told their babies had died suddenly within hours of birth and the hospital had taken care of their burials when in fact they were given or sold to another family.

More than 1,400 complaints alleging newborn babies were taken from their mothers in hospitals and ended up with other families have been filed with Spain's public prosecutors.

Mar Soriano, who believes her elder sister was one of the stolen children, said Sister Maria could not be allowed to become a scapegoat for all the cases of kidnapped newborns and she called for a full investigation.

"A nun on her own can't be the only one held responsible for this national disaster," said Soriano, who runs an association that campaigns on behalf of stolen children and their families.

The government announced Thursday it will set up a DNA database to help track down the stolen babies and would instruct prosecutors to give "priority attention" to cases lodged by alleged victims.

Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz Gallardon said the state had "the obligation to do all it can" to resolve the cases of the theft of newborns which he called a "terrible human drama which causes anguish".

"This is going to be a long and complicated process and therefore there are no magic formulas that the government can apply to resolve a problem that has existed for so many years," he added.