"I think that my baby was sold": Re-opening a dark chapter in Spain's history

(CBS News) ALICANTE, Spain - A scandal involving stolen babies has re-opened a dark chapter in Spain's history. Many of the alleged cases happened in the 1970s and 80s, when new mothers were told their babies had died. But really, these children were sold to other couples.

Only now are some of these mothers being reunited with their now grown children and as CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reports, those are the lucky ones.

On a sunny town square in a Spanish village, Linda Merrill tells a dark story -- how she awoke in a hospital after giving birth to find a doctor standing over her.

"I think that my baby was sold," Merrill said. "I said, 'Where's my baby?' and he said, 'Well, your baby died.'"

Thirty years have passed since Linda lost her baby -- time to learn she's not alone.

Linda is one of thousands of Spanish women now organizing themselves to search for babies they believe were stolen by an industrial-scale baby-trafficking racket involving government officials, the medical establishment and the church.

Spain's four-decade baby-snatching nightmare: What motivated the abductions?

Linda -- the daughter of an American airman who'd been based in Spain -- was given papers saying her baby had been buried. She never saw him.

"I kept on crying, I wanted to see my baby and I wanted to see my baby. And he said it wasn't a good idea, that I was very young -- I could have more children -- and that he had suffocated.

Watch a video below featuring an extended interview with Linda Merrill:

Across Spain, graves are being dug up on court orders to see if babies really were buried in them.

Laura Perales fought for years to have the coffin she was told contains the remains of her newborn son exhumed.

As a mother, she said through a translator, says she knows the healthy son she held in her arms for a-day-and-a-half before it was taken away -- did not die.

Spain's stolen babies scandal dates back to the dark days of the Franco dictatorship, when authority -- whether of government or the Catholic Church -- was not questioned.

A lot of painful Spanish history was buried during the Franco era, a lot of it involving the collusion of the church. Now, that history is being dug up -- they're digging for the truth.

One prosecution -- of a now 80-year old nun -- is already underway. Sister Maria is accused taking a child from its mother and is suspected of being part of a ring that moved thousands of babies from what it saw as loose-moraled families to more desirable, more Catholic families.

"They didn't probably think that we could bring up our babies right," Merrill said. "That was one of the things the nuns say. I think they were kind of playing like if they were gods, you know."

Laura's search for the truth will take for a while longer.

Remains of a child were found at one dig CBS News visited. DNA tests will show whether it's hers.

If not, she'll keep searching for the son, who would now be 31, and who she feels is somewhere, looking for her.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips returned to the CBS News London bureau as a correspondent in 1993. He has covered many major stories since then, including the war in the Balkans, the death of Princess Diana and the weapons inspection conflicts in Iraq.

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