SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) – Former members of a German cult based on a communal farm in southern Chile on Wednesday issued a public apology and asked for forgiveness for 40 years of child sex and human rights abuses.
In a full-page letter published in a leading Chilean newspaper, former members of the Colonia Dignidad communal farm said their charismatic former leader Paul Schaefer dominated them in mind and body while he molested children.
Schaefer is also accused of working with secret police to kidnap leftists during Chile’s 17-year dictatorship.
“Since we have been liberated from the domination of Paul Schaefer we have come to understand that our community lived its religious faith as a hermetic sect, which accepted the transformation of the personalities of its members and made them incapable of making decisions contrary to his wishes as sole leader,” former cult members said in the letter.
Schaefer founded the Colonia Dignidad in 1961 at Villa Baviera, where he set up a free clinic and school together with some 300 German followers who worshiped him as a god and had almost no contact with the outside world.
He formed the cult after persuading a group of followers to sell all their possessions in Germany and move to Chile to form what he said would be a religious farming commune and charity.
“Soon after we started and amid confessions of sin only to him, Schaefer came to know each of us completely, and he took advantage of that to dominate the community,” former cult members said in the letter published in the El Mercurio newspaper and sent to Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.
“Cutting us off from the outside world and forcing us to sever relations with our families and relatives, he was able to establish absolute control,” the letter said.
Schaefer was arrested in Argentina last year after eight years on the run and is currently in custody in Santiago. He was convicted in absentia of sexually abusing more than two dozen Chilean children lured to the Villa Baviera clinic and school, and is currently being tried again on those charges.
He is also facing charges of helping Chile’s secret police kidnap a political prisoner during the country’s 1973-90 military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Investigators recently discovered a mass grave on the farm where regime opponents may have been buried after being tortured and killed.
Last year, Chilean authorities discovered at the farm one of the biggest illegal weapons caches in the South American country’s history, including machine guns and rocket launchers.
The investigation has led to the indictment of more than 10 former cult members and several former secret agents on charges related to human rights abuses at the farm.
The letter, addressed to “Our co-citizens in Chile and Germany,” ended with a pledge by former cult members to collaborate to help reduce any suffering they had caused.