MADRID — In an unprecedented act of royal contrition, Spain's king apologized Wednesday for having gone elephant-hunting in Africa while everyday people endure a severe economic crisis.
"I am very sorry. I made a mistake. It won't happen again," King Juan Carlos said, trying to placate a rare wave of outrage against him.
Looking sheepish and using crutches to walk, he spoke as he left a Madrid hospital where he had undergone surgery after breaking his hip in a fall during the hunting trip to Botswana.
The 74-year-old monarch had come under scathing criticism this week after he went on the expensive safari as both Spain and its citizens struggled amid an economic crisis that has worsened by the day.
The trip came to light when the king fell and had to be rushed back to Spain Friday.
A royal palace official denied news accounts that the monarch left the country without telling the government. The official said that on April 2, in a routine weekly meeting with the prime minister, the king told him that the following Monday he would be in Botswana.
Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon said Tuesday that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy always knows where the head of state is.
The palace official said the king made the trip as a guest of unnamed hosts – so no taxpayer money was spent. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with royal palace policy.
Many Spaniards were dumbfounded that the king could make such an opulent journey – and, to boot, one to hunt elephants even though he is honorary president of the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund – while everyday people brave a 23 percent unemployment rate, a shrinking economy and fears that the country will be the next after Greece, Ireland and Portugal to need a bailout.
For many, the trip made the king's recent comments about how he couldn't sleep at night thinking about the country's unemployed ring hollow.
News of the safari caused an uproar so loud it eclipsed Spain's economic crisis for a few days. Members of most political parties had urged the king to say he was sorry.
The palace official confirmed the apology was unprecedented in the history of Spain's monarchy.
In early reaction, the ruling conservative Popular Party issued a terse statement saying it "shows its respect for a monarchy that is in tune with what the Spanish people expect and need from it."
The royal family has been in the news a lot lately – and not for the best reasons.
The king's son-in-law Inaki Urdangarin is a suspect in a corruption case, accused of using his position to embezzle several million euros in public contracts through a not-for-profit foundation. Then, over Easter, the king's 13-year-old grandson shot himself in the foot with a shotgun, even though by law in Spain you must be 14 to handle a gun.
Until now, Juan Carlos had always been a highly respected figure in Spain and almost never came in for criticism from either politicians or the media.
The king rarely speaks out on current affairs in Spain. But with the royal family looking so bad because of the Urdangarin case, in his traditional Christmas address last year, the king made a point of saying "everyone is equal in the eyes of the law." He said he was worried because of what he called growing mistrust of "some of our institutions."
Daniel Woolls contributed to this report.