Vienna to look into mass rape claim at foster home

AP News

10/17/2011 12:45:49 PM - AP News

Two women's claims that they were raped along with other children at a public foster home for years in the 1970s will be investigated by an independent panel, city officials said Monday. The head of a victims' organization that interviewed the women said their allegations were believable.

While announcing the creation of the panel, municipal officials expressed skepticism about the women's allegations that more than 20 girls at the Schloss Wilhelminenberg home were victimized by male staffers and other men. Individual cases of sexual, physical and psychological abuse were likely, they said but it seemed improbable that the existence of an organized ring preying on children could have remained hidden for decades.

"To be able to mass rape 20 children over a long period of time without anyone noticing _ this exceeds my comprehension," said Hans Feigfeld, a retired social worker who ran an independent educational program at the home in the 1970s.

But Weisser Ring, the non-governmental victims' organization tasked since last year with investigating cases of abuse at city foster homes, said its psychologists had interviewed the two women and found their story believable _ even if their recollections had faded over more than three decades.

Weisser Ring manager Marianne Gammer said that _ based on what the women told the therapists _ her organization would have recommended pressing criminal or civil charges _ "were it not for the statute of limitations on such crimes."

She said Weisser Ring, which is also authorized by the city to pay out compensation for foster home victims, granted the two women 35,000 euros _ nearly $50,000 each _ based on their testimonies. That is 10,000 euros more than the formal limit of 25,000 euros (nearly $35,000), but in their case the apparent degree of their suffering was so great "that our panel decided to give them more," she said.

In allegations that surfaced this weekend, the two women, identified only by first-name pseudonyms, said they and the other 18 girls in their dormitory were regularly raped by six or seven men. The sisters, now 47 and 49, said the abuse began when they were 6 and 8 and ended in their early teens

"All of us had our turn" with the men, who would sometimes rape the girls over several nights in a row and then stay away for several weeks before returning, the older woman told the daily Kurier, which first published their story. "We never talked about it at the home because our shame was so great, along with the pain, the insufferable pain."

Asked if money changed hands between foster home personnel and the men who allegedly victimized the girls, she said that was possible "because they always dolled us up. We had to wear garter belts and were not allowed to cut our hair."

While pledging to follow up the allegations, city officials said there were nonetheless discrepancies between the status quo at the home in the 1970s and what the women told the newspaper. While the women spoke of involvement by male child care personnel, they said only women were assigned to the wards of what was an all-girl home.

Vienna municipal official Johannes Koehler said he was "shocked" over the allegations, saying if true, "then everyone must have played along." While skeptical about the existence of a children's' sex ring, he acknowledged that some individuals used "sadistic methods" at foster homes of the 1970s. The city had traced four former child care workers at the institution who had denied any knowledge of such organized wrongdoing, he added.

Fellow official Josef Hiebel said that since the women spoke out, his department was receiving e-mails and telephone calls "every 15 minutes" from people linked to the home in some way and they would be asked to testify in front of the independent panel.

There was no response Monday to requests for interviews left with the office of lawyer Johannes Oelboeck, who represents the two women and says he will push for greater financial compensation.