'Italian Fritzl' was known to police and social workers

Children defend Michele Mongelli, alleged to have abused their sister for 25 years

The man who has been called "the Italian Josef Fritzl" after his daughter told police that he had confined her in the family home and abused her for 25 years, had frequent dealings with police and social workers, it emerged yesterday.

Yet neither the police who once arrested him and his son for theft, nor social workers who checked regularly on the progress of another deaf son, nor the parish priest told to mind his own business when he asked after the family, had any inkling of the horrors claimed to have taken place in the family home.

Michele Mongelli, 63, a scrap metal dealer in Turin, has been remanded in custody accused of abusing his daughter, whom police identified as "Laura", from the age of nine. Now 34, she is being cared for at an undisclosed facility.

Mr Mongelli's son Giuseppe, 40, is also in jail accused of abusing his own four daughters, aged between six and 20. In her statement to police made on 9 March, Laura said: "From when I was aged nine my father forced me to suffer sexual acts, touching my private parts, kissing me on the mouth, and from age 16 onwards forcing me to have full sexual intercourse with him."

Police said that Laura's claims were confirmed by telephone bugs, which recorded exchanges between father and daughter when the phone's handset was replaced incorrectly. The bugs also picked up Giuseppe Mongelli making obscene requests to his daughters.

There was no evidence that Michele Mongelli locked his daughter away from the sight of his other nine children and four grandchildren. And now the case is out in the public arena, some of his children are defending him fiercely. Laura's sister told reporters: "My father has never laid a finger on me. I kiss the ground he walks on." And Mr Mongelli's unnamed wife, also 63, said that the accusations against him were lies. "My husband works in metal," she said. "He goes round the markets, and he even went out thieving to keep his 10 children from going hungry. But he's never done any of these disgusting things."

Italian reporters who were admitted to the family's flat on the outskirts of Turin found a home full of crucifixes, images of St Padre Pio, stuffed toys, and photographs of the padre padrone. There was only a single photograph of Laura among the many family snaps on the wall, with short hair and sad, dead-looking eyes, La Stampa reported.

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