Young girls were sexually abused at a campsite in a small German town for years. Child services looked the other way and the police let evidence disappear. The perpetrators have now been jailed.
Roman von Alvensleben has seen many examples of human degradation in his long career. But the child sex abuse case in the small, western German town of Lügde is so devastating that even the experienced lawyer could hardly bear to read the file. After he did, he felt sick to his stomach. Von Alvensleben represents the now 10-year-old girl whose testimony triggered the investigation against the main suspect, Andreas V.
When V.'s mother first showed up at the lawyer's office, he didn't take her seriously. The story seemed too far-fetched. To this day, von Alvensleben cannot understand how "someone can maintain systematic abuse system on that scale for years without attracting attention, right under the very nose of the youth welfare authorities."
A stack of evidence
More than 40 children between the ages of three and 14 are said to have been sexually abused on a campsite in Lügde. The charges against Andreas V, who lived there permanently, included 298 criminal offences. His neighbor Mario S. also confessed to having sexually abused children, watched the abuse and given tips via online chat to Heiko V., who did the same. Authorities evaluated an incredible 14 terabytes of material including more than three million photos and 86,000 videos.
"If a well-to-do young couple wants to adopt a child, they must basically disclose everything and will still face considerable difficulties," an incredulous von Alvensleben told DW. "Then there is this man who has been unemployed for 20 years, lives on a campsite and they give him a foster child. Even though there were already warning signs of pedophilia."
Perfidious abuse system
"Addy," as he liked the kids to call him, spent years perfecting his system of abuse at his run-down plot. He lured his victims with a trampoline, trips to amusement parks and even a pony. He then abused them — often violently — and put massive pressure on the girls to keep quiet. The local youth welfare office then entrusted him with the foster child, who he used as bait.
Family liaison officers visited every week. Sometimes they would find Andreas V. in his bathrobe and underpants, and see girls playing in his litter-strewn caravan — supposedly without noticing a thing. When a youth welfare worker did get suspicious, she didn't intervene and even deleted the memo on Andreas V. Files were also manipulated after the scandal broke to cover up any wrongdoing by local authorities.
The employees of the youth welfare office and local police were also under investigation for violation of duties of care and education. Despite clear indications of sexual abuse, the police did not take action. A suitcase packed with 155 CDs and DVDs full of evidence disappeared without a trace at the police station, a fact that was only noticed weeks later.
Acknowledging "police failure," North Rhine-Westphalia's Interior Minister Herbert Reul called the situation a "debacle."
Roman von Alvensleben went even further. "It's not merely a case of negligence if a shed is overlooked during the search and the demolition company finds even more CDs there." Even the initial interviews with the victims were "less than ideal," he said, because the police officers really had no idea how to question children.
The lawyer cited more examples of the authorities' collective failure, criticizing the state's victim protection officer for sending an official letter to all the victims. "When the postal worker delivers these letters, you might as well paint a huge "V" for victims on the houses," he said.
The trial began at the end of June, and resulted in hefty jail sentences for the two main defendants. However, it is still clear to Roman von Alvensleben that "the abuse of children is not really taken seriously in our society."
Many unreported cases
Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig hopes to change that — a Herculean task for the lawyer, who has been the federal government's Independent Commissioner for Child Sexual Abuse Issues since 2011.
The serious shortcomings in child protection and police investigations are not new to Rörig, either. "We certainly cannot rule out the possibility that similar things are happening right now somewhere else in Germany," he said. Furthermore, Rörig could imagine that "other youth welfare offices are not pursuing leads with the necessary care and professionalism because they are overburdened or lack the necessary knowledge to recognize sexual abuse."
Last year, the lawyer said, there were 12,321 investigations and criminal proceedings into child sex abuse. But those were just the cases that were reported. The actual number may be many times higher. "We have to assume that one or two children in each school class are affected."
The figures are shocking. If there is anything positive to be drawn from the Lügde case, it is that the debacle has got the nation's attention. This might lead to the implementation of long overdue improvements to child protection in Germany.
Child protection before data protection?
Together with German Family Minister Franziska Giffey, the commissioner is planning to launch a nationwide awareness campaign on sexual violence, enforce the appointment of abuse commissioners in each individual federal state and introduce protection measures in schools. A recent study by the German Youth Institute revealed that just one in every 25 schools is currently equipped to deal with the topic.
Another matter Rörig plans to fight is online child pornography. There need to be higher minimum penalties for the perpetrators, he said, adding that child protection needs to come before data security. "We must do everything we can to make sure criminals no longer feel as safe on the internet as they unfortunately still do."
Editor's note: Deutsche Welle follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and urges us to refrain from revealing full names in such cases.