Child abuse case continues in Brno

A day in the high-profile trial involved emotional defendants, dark testimonies

The Prague Post/July 31, 2008

After a one-month recess, the trial against six south Moravian residents accused of child abuse resumed July 23 at the Brno Municipal Court. Defendant Jan Turek was first to make his way through the frenzy of camera flashes into the courtroom, followed by sisters Klára and Katerina Mauerová, each handcuffed and with a police escort.

Taking a seat among press and spectators that morning, it was hard to ignore a few conspicuous absences. The remaining three defendants, Barbora Škrlová (who is in custody but had asked not to appear in court), her brother Jan Škrla and Hana BaŠová (neither of whom are in custody), were represented by their attorneys.

After dismissing photographers and bringing the room to order, presiding judge Pavel Göth called the first of 45 witnesses scheduled to testify through July 30, in what is being considered the biggest child abuse case in Czech history.

The long story of abuse against Klára Mauerová's sons Jakub, 10, and, Ondrej, 8, first made headlines in May 2007. Early that month, police responded to a call from a resident of the nearby town of Kurim, who said he was setting up a baby monitor when he tuned into a video feed of a naked boy bound in a small room. Authorities investigated the neighboring Mauerová house, where they found a girl being called Anna, as well as Ondrej, bound in a closet. Klára was arrested, and Anna and Ondrej along with Jakub were placed in a childcare facility.

The highly publicized investigation that followed uncovered a routine of violence against Jakub and Ondrej.

According to testimonies, the abuse - allegedly carried out to varying degrees by all six defendants - involved keeping the boys in dog kennels, while they were made to recite obscene texts, and to cut and burn each other with cigarettes. At times, the boys were allegedly made to lay in shallow graves. At one point, flesh was cut from Ondrej's buttocks for the purpose of making him eat it.

One of the case's most curious characters was the child "Anna" who, following her escape from the childcare facility, was found to be the 33-year-old defendant Škrlová, impersonating a child. Škrlová was detained in Norway in January 2007, where she had been posing as a boy named Adam.

Now, Ondrej and Jakub's mother, Klára, sat hunched in a defendant's chair, wearing a light summer outfit and staring at the floor. Their aunt Katerina sat with a thick file on her lap, taking notes and regularly consulting with her lawyer.

The proceedings were officiated by the presiding judge, Göth, who, along with two associate judges, made up the judiciary senate. Without a jury, the verdict is decided by the judiciary senate, and the July 23 testimonies included some unnerving stories to inform that decision.

First to take the stand was Brno Deputy Mayor Anna Böhmová, who had inspected the Paprsek youth center in February 2004, where defendants Katerina and Hana worked. During that visit, the defendants asked that Böhmová not open a particular door. But Böhmová did so anyway, long enough to catch a glimpse of a dim room with a figure lying on a mattress.

The Böhmová testimony was followed by that of teacher Zdenka Hájková, who had given Ondrej his home-schooling progress exam for the 2006-07 school year. She testified that the boy appeared alarmingly sick. But, instead of questioning his condition, she sent him home to rest.

Listening to such statements, it was hard to resist the thought that, if either woman had alerted authorities to their observations, the events the rest of the day's witnesses recounted might have been avoided.

Next to take the stand was Brno police officer Miroslav Gregor, who had entered the Mauerová home to search for the boy seen on the neighbor's baby monitor. His testimony described a "wild girl" in the living room, and Klára and Katerina's desperate attempts to keep him from opening the closet door behind which Ondrej was kept.

When the next witness, fireman Petr Hanák, described breaking through that door and freeing Ondrej, his statements about the smell of vomit and excrement inside elicited a wave of murmurs and uncomfortable seat-shifting from spectators. Klára sobbed quietly to herself.

Sect mentality

Jakub and Ondrej's abuse is believed to have been organized by a Brno splinter sect of a religious following called the Grail Movement. The sect - of which all the defendants except Klára are members - had been cut off by Grail Movement officials. But its local leader, Josef Skrla, continued his own following, which included the next witness, TomአHerfort.

The testimony of Herfort, who had left the group years earlier, focused on sect mentality, in which life revolved around pleasing Škrla with spiritual devotion and manual labor. If Herfort were to leave the group, he believed that his life would "collapse" into evil.

The testimony was of particular interest to Klára, whose defense maintains that she was manipulated by sect members to abuse her boys. While Klára brightened at Herfort's statements, her mood changed abruptly when the final witness of the morning took the stand.

Jirí Hlavácek was a Mauerová family friend, who testified that, in fall 2005, he'd received a call from Klára, who asked if he could drive her to pick up Anna. Despite sensing a bad situation, he agreed, and drove while Klára took directions from Katerina on the phone. They eventually found Anna in a wooded area with bound wrists and a bag over her head.

On the return trip, Hlavácek said he wanted to call the police, but Klára begged him not to, saying that such interference would endanger Anna.

After Hlavácek was dismissed, the Mauerová sisters were cuffed and escorted from the room into the glare of camera flashes - a stark contrast to the dim closets and nighttime forest scenes described by the morning's testimonies. In the wake of Hlavácek's statements - another instance of an observer failing to take his suspicions to authorities - it was even harder not to wonder how much earlier those dark dealings could have been uncovered if even one of the witnesses would have stepped forward sooner.

Nina Hotková contributed to this report.

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