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Charity rejects cover-up claim in paedophile case

Hélène Sulzer denies allegations of paedophilia led to Terres des Hommes pulling out of orphanage projects in India. Keystone / Roger Doelly

The Swiss children's charity, Terres des Hommes, has strongly rejected allegations that it is sweeping a paedophilia case under the carpet to prevent the organisation's image from being tarnished.

A spokeswoman for the organisation in Lausanne, Hélène Sulzer, said there was no truth in reports in two leading Swiss newspapers, which alleged that Terres des Hommes had failed to press charges against one of its officials for sexually abusing children in India.

The reports appeared in the Friday editions of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Der Bund. They quoted the head of the charity’s branch in India, S.K. Biswas, as saying his predecessor, Milton McCann, had never been brought to justice for sexually abusing boys in an orphanage he ran in West Bengal.

McCann was dismissed in 1996 on suspicion of paedophilia. He was also suspected of financial impropriety, and had refused to let officials from Lausanne audit the accounts.

Sulzer says Terres des Hommes took the case to the authorities, and that the delay had nothing to do with the charity.

“We made a complaint to the West Bengal justice, and this complaint was accepted, and he was called to come before the courts in June,” she told swissinfo.

But the accusations against the charity go further. Biswas said the organisation was so worried about the impact of the affair that it cut its links with the Indian branch and the four orphanages it runs.

The Swiss charity has made no secret of its concern about this incident and a similar one in Ethiopia in 1997. Terres des Hommes is dependent on private donations, and they in turn depend on the organisation’s good reputation.

But Sulzer says it is pure coincidence that its decision to pull out of the orphanage projects in India followed the paedophilia case. She says the move is part of a new strategy being pursued worldwide.

“In 1998, we took a strategic decision to stop our work in schools, not just in India but throughout the world. It’s because there are other organisations whose teaching programmes are much more developed than ours, and so we are handing over our school projects to them wherever possible.”

She added that the charity’s new priorities were children’s health, particularly fighting malnutrition, and social programmes, especially for street children.

As a result of the paedophilia cases, Terres des Hommes has stepped up efforts to improve the screening of people seeking to join the organisation. In January, the organisation held a conference in Switzerland with representatives of 30 international charities to address the issues.

Among the measures discussed were a code of conduct for employees and a database of convicted paedophiles. They also agreed to improve monitoring of staff posted abroad.

by Malcolm Shearmur

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