Cult leader must pay victims

News24/May 25, 2006

Santiago (Reuters) -- Paul Schaefer, the German leader of a former religious cult in Chile, was sentenced on Wednesday to 20 years in prison for sexual abuse of 25 children, said a lawyer involved in the prosecution of the case.

Schaefer, 84, fled Chile in 1997 when authorities began investigating sex abuse accusations against him. He lived in hiding in Argentina until last year when he was discovered and sent to Chile to face trial.

"We are satisfied after a long and very difficult process, which has meant the collapse (of the cult) as a system, where they committed the most atrocious crimes in the history of Chile," Hernan Fernandez, a lawyer for the victims who helped the judge who prosecuted the case, told Reuters by telephone.

Schaefer had been convicted of the sex crimes in absentia, but was retried after he was brought back to Chile.

Sexual and human rights abuses

In a 299-page ruling, Judge Hernan Gonzalez of the Maule regional court in south-central Chile also ordered Schaefer to pay $1.4m in reparations to 11 of his victims, Fernandez said.

Judge Gonzalez investigated the case for 10 years after Chilean mothers came forward with accusations that Schaefer had abused their children after luring them to the cult's free school and clinic.

The judge delivered the sentence at the small courthouse in Parral, 340km south of Santiago, near the religious farming commune Schaefer formed in the early 1960s with a group of immigrants who followed him from Germany.

"This conviction ends 40 years of impunity and it also means justice for all those victims that at the time had no way to tell how they had been victimised," Fernandez said. He said almost all the victims were Chilean.

The group sealed itself off from the world for decades, living without televisions and telephones and practicing a severe, apocalyptic faith in which Schaefer was seen as a god on earth.

Former cult members and prosecutors said Schaefer abused children for years.

They said Schaefer forced children to live separately from their parents, strictly divided the sexes and prohibited contact with the outside world, while he fostered close ties with former dictator Augusto Pinochet, who used the group's farm as a detention and torture centre for political prisoners.

The cult - originally called Colonia Dignidad and later renamed Villa Baviera - only last year began to establish regular contact with the outside world.

In April, former members of the cult issued a public apology and asked for forgiveness for 40 years of sex and human rights abuses in their community, saying they were brainwashed by Schaefer.

Schaefer still faces human rights abuse charges related to aiding the Pinochet military regime. He is accused of being involved in the disappearance of six people during the dictatorship.

Government investigators found a weapons cache on the former cult's property last year, and also discovered a clandestine cemetery there.

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