Austrian charity investigating international child abuse allegations

An international charity said Thursday that it is investigating allegations of child abuse and fund mismanagement in Africa and Asia, pledging an "uncompromising" probe.

Austrian charity investigating international child abuse allegations
SOS Children's Villages, an international charity based in Austria, are investigating child abuse claims. Photo: BERTRAND GUAY / AFP

SOS Children’s Villages International supports 1.2 million people — mostly children — through more than 550 centres and other programmes around the world, helping orphans and others in need, according to a spokeswoman.

It has found “cases of serious child protection violations and mismanagement”, a manager of the organisation’s founding Austrian branch, Elisabeth Hauser, said in a statement.

Allegations of child mistreatment, including sexual abuse, and fund mismanagement have cropped up in about 20 of the 137 countries where the charity operates, the group’s spokeswoman told AFP.

More than 40,000 people work for the organisation, which was founded more than 70 years ago.

The spokeswoman said the organisation could not say how many children have been affected because the probe was still ongoing.

“There are also allegations that executives from SOS Children’s Villages International were aware of some of the incidents and that the investigation and prosecution was suppressed,” Hauser said.

In a separate statement, SOS Children’s Villages International CEO Ingrid Maria Johansen apologised to “the children and young people who have been subject to harm”.

“I am deeply saddened that there have been cases within the organisation where some amongst us did not fulfil our promise to keep children safe,” she said, promising “new measures” to address the problems.

The cases — some dating back to the 1990s — came to light through an investigation commissioned by the charity last November following an initial probe into abuse allegations launched three years ago.

Hauser said that in one case, a child whose performance in school had dropped had been locked up and not allowed to visit their own parents.

As an example of fund mismanagement, Hauser pointed to alleged cases of nepotism in the awarding of construction contracts.

An independent commission has been set up to probe the cases further and suggest structural changes to the group, Hauser said. A report is expected by the second half of 2022. “We are called upon to act decisively and without compromises,” Hauser said.

“Our structure obviously has weaknesses.” She said victims would be compensated from a special fund totalling “millions of euros”.

In 2012, SOS Children’s Village Austria tasked an Austrian historian with documenting its work and educational practices from the 1950s to the 1990s, including shedding light on past cases of violence against children.

A damning book titled “Committed to Silence: Experiences with SOS Children’s Villages” was published two years later.

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Austrian Josef Fritzl to be released to ‘normal prison’

Josef Fritzl, was imprisoned in 2009 for the rape and unlawful detention of his daughter in the Austrian village of Amstetten, has been released from psychiatric detention on Wednesday and is set to serve in a standard prison. Fritzl is eligible for early release in 2023.

Austrian Josef Fritzl to be released to ‘normal prison’

When making the decision, the Krems Regional Court held that Fritzl no longer posed any danger and could therefore be kept in a standard jail. 

Fritzl, who changed his name to Mayrhoff while in prison, was jailed in 2009 for several crimes including the unlawful imprisonment and rape of his daughter Elizabeth, who bore him seven children in a specially built soundproof basement. 

One of the children, a boy, died shortly after birth in 1996, upon which Fritzl burnt his body. 

Court spokesman Ferdinand Schuster told Austrian media on Wednesday that the decision was subject to an appeal to the Higher Regional Court (OLG) in Vienna. 

Fritzl’s release into the mainstream prison system was decided upon by a three-judge panel under a probation period of ten years. 

The panel made its decision based on a mental health assessment produced in March. 

Fritzl stood trial in 2008 for the crimes, having been deemed sane and therefore faced mainstream charges. 

Fritzl is eligible for release as early as 2023 after receiving a life sentence. 

Austrian media pointed out on Wednesday that a 2023 release would see him serve nine years less than his daughter Elizabeth spent in Josef’s basement dungeon.