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French court convicts 62 in mass pedophilia trial

Thursday, July 28, 2005

ANGERS, France -- A court convicted 62 defendants Wednesday in a mass pedophilia trial and sentenced some of them to up to 28 years in prison for their roles in a network that systematically raped and prostituted children in western France.

In the harrowing case, prosecutors said 45 children between the ages of 6 months and 14 years were raped and abused by their parents, grandparents or acquaintances in a working-class neighborhood of Angers from 1999 to 2002 -- at times in exchange for small amounts of money, food, alcohol or cigarettes.

Three of the 65 defendants were acquitted.

About 10 of the victims followed along in a nearby courtroom, with magistrates explaining the proceedings. They were relieved by the verdict, said Alain Fouquet, a defense lawyer.

During its weeklong deliberations, the nine-member jury pored over 1,974 separate allegations against the defendants. The court took two hours just to read aloud the decision -- a reminder of the network's immense size.

Defendants appeared one by one to hear their sentences. One of the alleged ringleaders, Eric J., pounded on the table and started an argument as the court read out his 28-year sentence. Police escorted him from the room.

Eric J. was described by prosecutors as an "ogre" accused of raping or abusing 15 children.

Victims and suspects in the trial cannot be identified by full names because of French laws designed to preserve the anonymity of child victims.

The 4 1/2-month trial presided over by Judge Eric Marechal showed that abuse was sometimes carried out over several generations.

The other man handed a 28-year sentence, Philippe V., was convicted of raping three of his grandchildren. During the trial, he coldly stated he "didn't give a damn" about his own children. He had already been convicted in 1991 of raping his son.

His son, Franck V., also participated in the ring and received an 18-year sentence. Accused of 12 rapes, he was also blamed for allowing much of the abuse to occur at his apartment. His ex-wife, Patricia M., was given a 16-year term. Twenty-six of the defendants were women.

Pascal Rouiller, an attorney for Franck V., had argued in the trial that state social workers were to blame for leaving dozens of children vulnerable to the ring that preyed on them.

More than half of the accused, ages 27 to 73, were unemployed and living off benefits in state-supported housing. Defense attorneys have said some suspects were illiterate and ap-peared not to fully understand the charges against them.

Moise C., who had already been convicted twice on pedophilia charges, was found guilty of rape and sexual aggression and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Considered by prosecutors as one of the most dangerous defendants, he allegedly wore a mask to hide his face while raping children.

"He needed to watch pedophile cassettes just to fall asleep," prosecutor Yvan Auriel said earlier this month.

The case surfaced in 2000, when a 16-year-old girl alleged she had been raped by her mother's boyfriend and his brother.

Three couples at the heart of the case lured their children and those of their friends, relatives and neighbors by saying they were going to "play doctor," according to the prosecution's 420-page legal filing charges. One girl allegedly was raped 45 times.

The shadow of another pedophilia trial in the northern town of Outreau last year has hung over the case.

That trial exposed shortcomings in the justice system because some defendants were wrongly accused. Although 10 were convicted, seven were acquitted after spending nearly three years in prison awaiting trial. The government agreed to pay each $130,000 compensation.

A follow-up inquiry recommended that investigators get better training in gathering testimony from children and that professionals be on hand when minors are questioned.


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