Croatia confronts sexual abuse of children
Croatia is coming to terms with a type of crime it never addressed under communism - the sexual abuse of children.
Several investigations undertaken by prosecutors in recent weeks show child abuse and paedophilia may be more widespread than the staunchly Roman Catholic country cares to admit.
Officials ordered inspections of state orphanages earlier this month after two girls in a state-run home in the coastal town of Pula said a cook tried to rape them.
On Monday, three women counsellors, including two nuns, were charged with neglect and abuse in a homeless children’s shelter near Zagreb run by Caritas, a relief organisation sponsored by the Catholic Church.
The three pleaded not guilty. A fourth suspect from the same orphanage, a janitor accused of raping a mentally retarded 9-year-old boy, has been in custody for several weeks.
The Balkan country’s willingness to acknowledge and examine the issue has emerged only since the end of communism in 1990, with the breakup of the former state of Yugoslavia.
“In socialism, this would have been improper, deviant behaviour. Society and media were tightly controlled so we never talked about it,” said analyst Davor Gjenero.
“Now, although Croatia is still conservative, there is a more liberal approach, media are not controlled, society is open and ready to face up to all kinds of bad things,” Gjenero said.
But the highest-profile case so far, of two boys raped by their parents, suggests authorities still move slowly when faced with the possibility of sexual abuse.
The two boys from the town of Sunja in central Croatia were initially taken into care last year, aged four and seven at the time, with social workers citing lack of proper parental care.
Rumours of domestic sexual abuse emerged after the boys were interviewed and examined.
Local media reported the parents and two of their friends had staged orgies and molested the boys repeatedly, dubbing them “the monsters of Sunja”.
But almost nine months passed before police completed their investigation and arrested the four in early July, charging them with sexually abusing the children “in a particularly cruel and humiliating way”.
CHURCH CLAIMS SMEAR
Gordana Buljan Flander, who heads a centre for molested children in Zagreb, said paedophilia had always been around.
“We only started talking about it in the last five years,” she said. “Both children and grown-ups are more aware now.”
Her ‘Brave Phone’, a toll-free line for reporting child abuse, now receives some 80 calls a week, compared to three when it started in 1997.
A taboo has also been broken by the normally conservative Croatian media.
All abuse cases received blanket coverage in recent months but the Caritas orphanage case provoked a media stampede, with the Catholic Church facing unprecedented criticism for trying to sweep the case under the carpet.
The Caritas officials have denied children were starved, severely punished for any disobedience and sexually molested by staff, most of whom are poorly educated volunteers.
They say the case is a smear campaign against the Church, while Catholic leaders indicated the Caritas management would be reshuffled with as little ado as possible.
But talk shows and call-ins show the public is outraged and mistrustful of the Church’s version of events. The public and personalities alike have criticised the judiciary’s slowness and reluctance to push the case, while praising the media.
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