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"School of horrors" abuse case splits Italian town
RIGNANO FLAMINIO, Italy |
RIGNANO FLAMINIO, Italy (Reuters) - Rignano Flaminio, a sleepy little town around an hour's drive from Rome, has not been the same since police burst into its model nursery school seven months ago seeking evidence of child abuse.
Many of its 7,000 residents fear it never will be. The arrest last month of three teachers -- women in their fifties and each with at least 20 years' experience -- horrified parents and has sparked lurid headlines about the "school of horrors".
Few Italians had hitherto heard of the moderately prosperous town, set in rolling hills, until the scandal at the Olga Rovere school, named best nursery school in the region in 1999.
Now the affair, which has yet to come to trial, has split the town between those who fiercely defend the teachers and those convinced they headed a pedophile ring which systematically abused up to 20 pupils aged three or four.
"The situation is devastating. I hurt for the children, the families, the whole community," said 65-year-old mayor Ottavio Coletta.
Few prominent child abuse scandals have come to light in Catholic Italy, which some psychologists and support groups say reflects an inability to face up to the existence of pedophilia.
The prosecutors' allegations are chilling. They say children were regularly driven in small groups from the school to teachers' houses. There they were drugged and filmed while performing sex acts with adults, then driven back to the school.
In their case against the six suspects, including a school caretaker and the husband of one of the teachers, the prosecutors also cite evidence they may have performed satanic rites while abusing the children.
Despite the furor the school is still open, and looks anything but horrific. Children play hide-and-seek outside the red and grey glass-fronted building in spacious, grassy grounds dotted with slides and plastic castles.
The school says more than half the pupils are still attending. The parents who withdrew their children are either keeping them at home or sending them to a playgroup in town.
Mayor Coletta has asked the government to fund a new school to help exorcise "the 'school of horrors' specter haunting us".
Media invading Rignano are welcomed by both defenders and accusers of the teachers, who hope good coverage for their side will sway public opinion and the judges.
Michele Angeleri and his wife Nunzia -- a colleague of the arrested teachers -- have formed a committee to defend them. He drives reporters to his home where they make the case for their defense.
"I worked with them all for 15 years and you can't imagine people more devoted to looking after and protecting children," said Nunzia, her eyes welling with tears.
Angeleri talks of a "collective psychosis", saying parents panicked at the sight of their children merely learning to explore their own bodies, and put words into their children's mouths.
But prosecutors say the children produced matching accounts of events, including accurate details of the teachers' houses where the crimes are alleged to have occurred.
The Committee for the Accused Teachers organized a 300-strong torchlight procession led by the town priest outside the prison where the teachers were held. Other inmates hurled abuse from their windows, accusing the marchers of supporting pedophiles.
The six suspects have since been released from prison, a decision which does not imply their innocence as the accusations against them remain.
Psychologist Vera Slepoj said it was worrying to see citizens mobilize in favor of pedophilia suspects.
"In Italy the family is idealized but in a purely abstract way," she said. "Society is highly individualistic and sexual behavior is seen as a personal and uncontrollable matter.
"The result is a refusal to accept that pedophilia can exist in our community, and a lack of protection for children."
The teachers' supporters cite what they say were similar cases against teachers in the northern cities of Brescia and Bergamo, which produced acquittals. In Brescia, as in Rignano, the local church came out strongly in favor of those accused.
But Arianna Di Biagio, spokeswoman for the Parents' Association whose daughter was taught by one of the accused teachers, scoffs at the idea the children were prompted to make up stories.
"We are talking about three- and four-year old kids who mimed sex with their teddy bears or the family dog, who began speaking about oral and anal sex," said Di Biagio, her dark eyes flashing. "What would you expect the parents to do but go to the police? The fracture in the town is very deep, I don't think it will heal for generations."
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