The words of little children from an isolated town in rural South Africa may have stopped an international sex predator.
US investigators say Jesse Osmun confessed that when he was a Peace Corps volunteer he sexually molested at least five girls for months at a South African shelter for Aids orphans and other children. None of the girls were older than six.
In a Twitter account and on blogs, Osmun portrayed himself as a champion of Africa and wrote about working with children. Before coming to South Africa, where he started work at the shelter in March, he volunteered at an orphanage in Kenya, where the director said he did no harm. He also wrote of seeking other international aid work before his arrest last week.
His do-gooder identity may have helped cover a darker side. And then the little girls spoke.
He "offers to end his services"
"They were frightened. They were brave to tell. They did something very important," said Samkele Mhlongo, a Greytown police translator who helped an American investigator interview two of the victims from the Umvoti Aids Centre where Osmun volunteered.
Mhlongo said that when the children were shown pictures of Osmun, said they described how he made them perform oral sex before being given sweets - with a warning not to tell anyone what had happened.
Mhlongo said Osmun also showed the children child pornography stored on his computer.
According to an investigator's affidavit submitted to the Connecticut court that will try Osmun, a teacher saw Osmun follow three girls into a building at Umvoti. The teacher followed after a few minutes later and saw Osmun with his back to her and one of the girls near him. He allegedly appeared 'startled' and zipped up his pants. A girl later told the teacher she was asked to perform oral sex on him.
Two days later, according to the affidavit, Osmun was confronted by an Umvoti manager. The same day, Osmun informed Peace Corps he wanted to end his service several months short of the usual two years. At this point, no one told Peace Corps of the molestation concerns.
Greytown police told The Associated Press they never received a complaint from Umvoti.
The predator’s confession is in police hands
The US investigator said Umvoti's director told her she had confronted Osmun before he went to Peace Corps to ask to cut short his service. She said she had told him she believed he was a child molester and urged him to get help.
Osmun told the director he would seek help. The US investigator also said children at the centre had come to Umvoti officials with disturbing stories about Osmun months before May. Umvoti officials refused to comment for this article.
Osmun flew out of South Africa on June 1, and it was only on June 7 that Umvoti informed Peace Corps of its concerns, US investigators said. Peace Corps immediately sent its own investigator to Greytown, and South African police were informed.
US investigators said that they confronted Osmun in Connecticut and obtained his written confession.
Joan van Niekerk of Childline South Africa, which campaigns against child abuse, said that the man the children described to officials fit the profile of a calculating paedophile. Paedophiles seek out places where children are vulnerable, she said, which very much describes developing countries like South Africa, where law enforcement can be weak and awareness of how to protect children low.
Now he faces 30 years if convicted in the US
Commonly in South Africa, she said, "cases can take years to come to court - during which time evidence is lost, contaminated and the longer the case takes the more likely the acquittal."
Marita Rademeyer, a South African psychologist who counsels children who have been abused, said South African studies show only one in nine reported cases of child abuse go to court, and when there are convictions, sentences rarely approach the 30 years Osmun faces in the US. She said many cases are never reported because victims feel ashamed, or have no one they can trust to tell.
According to South African police, more than 27,000 cases of sexual offences against children were reported last year, accounting for nearly half of all crimes against children. Experts say the weakness of the South African family - a legacy of apartheid when laws forced adults to seek work far from home - and high rates of crime and violence make children here particularly vulnerable. In addition, South Africa, the country with the most people living with HIV in the world, has millions of Aids orphans.
Sister Mary Owens, director of the Nyumbani Children's Home, said Osmun volunteered at her Nairobi, Kenya shelter for children orphaned by Aids and children who are HIV positive. Owens, informed by the AP of the charges against Osmun, said she had spoken with staff and determined he had not been suspected of similar activities there.
Staff at children shelters must be trained to recognise paedophile signs
Asked whether US prosecutors were investigating whether Osmun had abused children in Kenya, Laura Sweeney, a US Justice Department spokeswoman familiar with his case, said she could not comment.
Osmun had written on a blog of having worked at the Kenyan orphanage, though he said it was in 2004.
The Peace Corps, a 50-year-old humanitarian agency that gives ordinary Americans opportunities to do international development work, said every applicant undergoes a criminal background check and is screened for suitability.
Liz Hughes, director of South African programmes for the international aid agency, Save the Children, said such screening is only the first step. Organisations helping children must recognise that people who want to hurt children will be drawn to their shelters and schools, and must train staff to recognise danger signals. Children must also feel confident that when they report abuse, they will be taken seriously, Hughes said.
(Sapa, August 2011)