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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - ASPECA puts happy face on sex abuse claims

ASPECA puts happy face on sex abuse claims

A French NGO is refusing to investigate allegations that its staff sexually abused

children under its care, saying the reputation of their organization and its ongoing

work are more important than the victims.

The organization - ASPECA - runs orphanages through a child sponsorship scheme

that is advertised in France.

ASPECA's Director International President Etienne Roussel approached the Post twice

in an effort to dissuade publication of any damaging allegations, saying the second

time, "no-one has been investigated, there is too much to destroy."

The refusal to investigate the allegations and the desire to avoid scandal has resulted

in confusion about the facts and accusations of a cover up.

ASPECA management has changed its story several times over what has happened and

what they knew of the scandal.

There are two versions of the events and while both are diametrically opposite in

terms of responsibility both allege children in ASPECA care had sex with staff.

In the first version, the former country director is accused of having sex with a

13-year-old girl at orphanage number four.

This, despite their initial denials, is backed by ASPECA who have fired the director

for financial irregularities and moral misconduct.

Both accusations are strongly denied by the director who is now in France. He said

he would take legal action to clear his name.

The second version of the story is that the Khmer Deputy Director had been stealing

money from the organization, and then set up his boss when he started an investigation.

A former staff member backed this version, saying it was actually the Deputy Director

who had been abusing girls in the orphanage and used the Director's friendship with

one of the orphans as the basis of a rumor campaign to have him fired.

Whichever version is true, in whole or part, it is unlikely to come to light through

the efforts of ASPECA itself which is moving swiftly to try and kill any hint of

scandal.

ASPECA management visited the Post April 8 to discus the story.

Initially they denied having received a complaint about the director nor, they said,

did they have any proof that misconduct took place.

This was in direct contrast with an earlier unsolicited approach to the Post by Roussel,

who said the Director had admitted to the actions.

"He was fired for grave misbehavior and paedophilia acts on reports coming from

Cambodian staff and the girl herself," he said.

"There are converging testimonies. [The Director] admitted the case in front

of the committee. We will charge him [with paedo-phillia] depending on [his] attitude

towards the association.

"If he intends to damage ASPECA I will charge him.

He said the only reason he had not charged the director was because of the good work

he had done already.

"I do not have the will to destroy one man's reputation.

"He worked on building an association that looked after the kids," he said.

But despite saying they received his confession, ASPECA has done nothing for the

victim herself.

At the April 8 meeting, the staff said there was no proof that there was any rape

or sexual misconduct so there was no reason to put it before the authorities. This

was despite the claims of the French head of the organization that there had been

a confession.

The lack of proof was the reason they gave for not rendering any assistance to the

child.

They admitted they had not had her examined by a doctor nor had she received any

counseling. Roussel said as an aside during the discussion: "It wasn't really

rape."

When asked directly if they believed that the reputation of their organization was

more important than child rape the ASPECA staff said yes.

They said that they helped 4200 children and all that could be lost if there was

a scandal.

One of the staff said that the girl now just wanted to forget about the whole episode.

They said the girl had been spoken to by a local ASPECA staff member and said she

did not want to make a complaint.

The only person who seems keen on the matter being thoroughly investigated is the

man who has been fired and accused of paedophillia. He said he believed calling in

the authorities would see his name cleared.

"I realized that the [financial] problems were there for a little while. [The

Deputy Director] was worried because I started to look at his financial mishandling."

He said that was when the rumors started and at that time asked for an inquiry to

be held.

"I told them that they should do an investigation, nominate a commission to

see the girl and have her testify to what really happened.

"The girl has to be found, no-one is talking about her," he said.

It is not clear what has happened to the girl. ASPECA's French based staff said she

was still in orphanage number four.

However the Deputy Director told the Post prior to the meeting that the girl had

disappeared.

A staff member said that the girl and her three siblings were thrown out of the orphanage

as soon as word came through of the director's dismissal.

The director denies that he had any sexual relationship with the girl. He also denies

he ever made such a confession to ASPECA management.

However, he does admit to behaving unwisely.

"In Battambang when we were on tour last July, she asked if she could stay in

the same room as me. There were two beds in the room and I did not think it wrong

then. I understand now. But for the kids I am like their father, and in Cambodia

parents sleep with their kids."

The man's close relationship with the girl was backed up by the former staff member

who said that the girl called him Papa while he called her sister.

She added that the Director had given financial assistance to the girl's family.

The woman said that the Director's behavior was not predatory, unlike the Deputy

Director, whom she said had slept with a number of the girls and in return gave them

favored treatment over the other children.

She also said that the Deputy Director had been stealing money from the organization.

Sources said that the Deputy Director had been transferring ASPECA money into his

own bank account each month and keeping the interest.

The Deputy Director denied the allegation.

"I did not do anything wrong, there are financial audits that check what I do,"

he said. "The [former Director] is saying that to protect himself, why did he

not raise the question last year or even before that?

He also denied that he had set up his former boss.

"It is not me who accuses him but lots of people. By accident I received the

letter that the girl was sending to her sponsor.

"I read the letter that accused [the former Director] but I have not yet found

the truth.

"In the letter the girl said that [the Director] raped her. I do not have the

letter with me. It was sent to Paris. It is not my responsibility to file a complaint.

It is up to the president to do that. I did not make anything up. I did not accuse

him myself. It is the girl who does it."

Meanwhile, as ASPECA starts to try and play down the sex scandals, concerns are being

voiced about other aspects of the organiz-ation's care for the children.

An ASPECA sponsor said he was worried about the safety of children after visiting

the Battambang orphanage.

"I was once with the Cambodian head of the NGO in Battambang," he said.

"We saved two girls from the brothel and when we went back to the orphanage

I saw the [Khmer Director] asking the girl to massage him in a locked room. He was

only wearing a krama around his [waist]."

In another case involving the Battambang orphanage, a European couple who have been

long- term residents of Cambodia went there seeking an older child for adoption.

Their adoption papers had been signed by National Police Chief Hok Lundy and when

they were handed over they were told to go to ASPECA to select a child.

They said that the director offered them a choice of two children - one was

HIV positive, the other had just arrived.

The husband said that the director told him the rest of the children were being sponsored

by people in France and were not available for adoption until the sponsor ceased

the financial support.

He said the director refused to give him the addresses of any foster parents nor

would he pass on a message saying that the child they had been supporting had the

chance of a permanent home

The husband said it effectively meant that the children were: "condemned to

a life in an orphanage."

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