Belgium shocked by child sex case in remote village

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The Independent Online

From homes huddled round the village church, another dark tale of child sex has crept out to shock Belgium.

Nineteen people living in and around Sainte-Ode, a remote village of 2,000 in the Ardennes, went on trial yesterday, accused of having sex with the daughter of a former bar owner starting from when she was 12. Accusations that a half dozen other minors were also involved will figure prominently in the trial, which is expected to last a month.

Less than six years ago, Belgium was traumatised by the case of Marc Dutroux, accused of raping and killing young girls in a case that made international headlines and held up to ridicule the performance of Belgian police.

The shame was compounded by Dutroux's brief 1998 escape from custody, for which he is serving a five-year sentence while awaiting trial.

The nation's unease over Dutroux makes the case before the Correctional Tribunal in Neufchateau, 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Sainte-Ode, all the more disturbing.

The scandal surfaced last year in the dead of winter, when the girl, who had turned 14, alerted police, claiming she had been forced to have sex with her father and other men visiting the home. First to be arrested were her divorced father and his girlfriend, widely suspected of being a prostitute. Then the list grew.

There was the lumberjack, the car repair man, the phone company technician, an antique salesman. Rumours reached a peak when the village doctor was charged. Some, including the doctor, have denied the allegations.

Although many cases of similar proportions have fallen apart in Europe and the United States, Belgian prosecutors say they have found compromising photos, and that many of the accused have confessed.

Villagers are outraged at the media's treatment of the case. La Derniere Heure, a national newspaper, took the unusual step of publishing the names and professions of the suspects. Humo magazine headlined its story: "They did it with the woman or the daughter, depending who was home." Sainte-Ode was called "the paedophilia village".

The magnitude of the case has surprised many.

"This is a major case and it shows that it can happen anywhere," said Colette Brichaux of Child Focus, the European centre for missing and sexually abused children.

Officials at Europol say paedophilia cases happen all over Europe. But one reason Belgium stays in the spotlight is Dutroux himself. He managed to hit the headlines again a few days ago by talking to a journalist in his cell and claiming a child sex network still existed in Belgium, "but the justice system does not want to investigate this".