Child abuse trial's collapse pitches French justice system into crisis

The French justice system was in disgrace yesterday after the spectacular collapse of a high-profile trial in which 17 people, including a priest and a property lawyer, were charged with paedophile and bestial acts. Two of the accused - the mothers of six of the alleged child victims - abruptly admitted to a court in Saint Omer, near Boulogne, on Tuesday night that they had lied about the involvement of almost all the other defendants.

"I lied about everything," said one of the women, Myriam Delay, 37, interrupting the proceedings. "I am a sick woman and a liar ... Roselyne you did nothing. M. Godard, he too did nothing. David Brunet the same. Karine, you did nothing ..." One by one she exculpated the other defendants, who had been accused by herself and her four children of being involved in an elaborate child-prostitution ring, including among other things forcing children to perform sexual acts with dogs. Her neighbour, Aurélie Grenon, then withdrew her identical accusations.

One of the accused, Alain Marécaux, a court bailiff and property lawyer, 44, shouted: "I've lost everything. They stole my children. Killed my mother." Several of those cleared, including M. Marécaux, had spent two and a half years in jail. One accused man had committed suicide. Two others, including the priest, Father Dominique Wiel, had been on hunger strike in prison to protest their innocence. Marriages have broken up. Jobs had been lost. The children of what now appear to be wholly innocent people have been placed in care (one of whom tried to commit suicide at the start of the trial).

"This is a judicial Chernobyl... a surrealist folly," said Maître Hubert Delarue, lawyer for M. Marécaux. "Innocent men and women have been allowed to rot in jail, in a state of despair." Le Monde described the four-year investigation and trial as a "voyage into the country of judicial horrors". After ignoring sexually assaulted children for too long, the newspaper said, France's judicial system had over-compensated by treating all accusations by children as "sacred".

It now appears that the assaults on children in a council block in Outreau, a suburb of Boulogne, were confined to sexual acts between Mme Delay and Mme Grenon and their husbands and their six children.

Many mysteries remain, however. Mme Delay's oldest son, Dimitri, now 12, named a string of other attackers, including neighbours but also people who claimed that they had never heard of the two families. Mme Delay and then Mme Grenon confirmed these accusations but their husbands always denied them. Defence lawyers suggested from the beginning that Dimitri and the other children were lying to spread the guilt beyond their own parents.

Mme Delay and her son spoke of orgies of child sex in a house over the border in Belgium. Mme Delay said a small Moroccan girl had been brought to the house, murdered and buried in the garden. Police investigations revealed nothing.

Defence lawyers demanded to know why a series of expert psychologists had declared the evidence of the children and Mme Delay to be "credible", despite many factual discrepancies. The gaps in the evidence, especially the statements made by Dimitri, began to unravel further when he and other children gave evidence in camera on Monday. It was while the inconsistencies were being discussed in court on the 11th day of the trial that Mme Delay interrupted and said that she had been lying all along.

Defence lawyers and newspapers said yesterday that the investigation and trial had exposed the limits of the French system of judicial investigation, in which an examining magistrate inquires into the evidence both for and against the guilt of the accused. Blandine Lejeune, lawyer for Father Wiel, said the investigation had been convinced that "children cannot lie".

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