SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) – A Chilean judge found the fugitive German leader of a religious sect guilty of sexually abusing 26 children after an investigation that lasted eight years, newspapers reported on Wednesday.
Judge Hernan Gonzalez of the Talca Appeals Court also sentenced 22 Chilean and German members of the isolated sect, which has lived in southern Chile for 43 years, to up to five years each for their roles in covering up the abuse or obstructing justice, according to La Tercera newspaper.
The German enclave Villa Baviera, also known as Colonia Dignidad, has been the center of dozens of legal battles in Chile for decades, including sex abuse charges, tax evasion cases and a human rights investigation related to collaboration with Chile’s former military government.
The only person found guilty of acts of sex abuse was the former sect leader, Paul Schaefer, who has been missing since 1997. He is believed to be 81 years old.
Under Chile’s legal system, the court has to take another step to formalize the sentences against those convicted of collaborating with Schaefer before they start to serve time. A lawyer for the convicted people said his clients were innocent and would appeal, the newspaper reported.
Schaefer moved to Chile with a group of German families and in 1961 established a religious cult and farming commune a four hour drive south of Santiago.
The community had close ties with the 1973-90 military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and has been accused of providing Pinochet’s secret police with a place to torture political prisoners.
In 1996, authorities charged Schaefer with the sexual abuse of Chilean children who went to the sect’s free school and clinic.
About 280 members of the former sect still live at Villa Baviera. Many of them are elderly Germans who do not speak Spanish and led an isolated life under Schaefer, who broke up families at the commune and prohibited intimacy.
The sect has only recently begun to establish contact with the outside world.
Members of the community spoke with Reuters recently about the widespread physical abuse inside the sect under Schaefer.