Berlin shrugs off child sex scandal

 

Seedy is too elegant a word to describe Pinocchio, a poky, scruffy bar in Berlin's gay district which is at the centre of a scandal involving under-age sex, prostitution, child pornography and murder. Police are investigating allegations that underage boys were sent from Pinocchio to Amsterdam to work in paedophile brothels and take part in sex videos.

In one case, a father is accused of putting his own son to work as a prostitute in the bar when the boy was only 12 years of age, and selling him to pornographers in the Netherlands.

Prosecutors are examining evidence that police officers may have been involved in the under-age prostitution scene by tipping off bar-owners before raids by the vice squad in return for back-handers.

At the start of this week, when photographs of Pinocchio appeared in German newspapers, the bar's owners took down the sign outside and pinned a notice to the door claiming that a new management was in charge. By Wednesday, everything was back to normal, the sign was restored and business was booming.

"It's amazing. I've never seen the place so full", said one teenage boy called Paul as he slouched drunkenly against a pinball machine.

"But you won't see any kids here now if that's what you're looking for. There's been trouble about it and they won't let them in if they're too young."

A dozen middle-aged and elderly men surrounded the bar, slurping beer as they chatted about the weather, politics and taxes, magisterially ignoring the boy prostitutes who lined the walls.

Most of the boys looked as if they were in their late teens and a few were older, but one boy, wearing bermuda shorts and an oversized tee-shirt as he listened to a Walkman, appeared no older than 14. Munching on a meatball smeared with mustard, he darted challenging glances around the bar, occasionally flashing a brief, cold, knowing smile.

The grim, smelly surroundings of Pinocchio may have been the last sight of Berlin that 12-year-old Manuel Schadwald enjoyed before he disappeared five years ago. Police inquiries into Manuel's fate have got nowhere, but Marcel Vervloesem, a Belgian anti-paedophile campaigner, believes he has traced the boy to brothels in Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

Mr Vervloesem, a 45-year-old father of three, hit the headlines last month after he uncovered what he claims to be the most extensive child pornography ring ever found. Dutch police set up a 15-strong task force to investigate the porn network, but Mr Vervloesem was arrested briefly when he initially refused to hand over evidence to the police.

"Now the police have their task force and European leaders are demanding fast action. But we've had no support from the police or the government since 1992. It's a scandal", he said.

Mr Vervloesem claims to have discovered a child-smuggling network linking Berlin and Amsterdam which provided boys for brothels and pornography distributed over the Internet.

Among the 9,000 pictures on one of the computer disks produced by the porn ring was one of 12-year-old Manuel, his hands pinned behind his head as he stared sadly into the camera. When the picture was shown on a German television news programme two weeks ago, Manuel's former teacher recognised the boy and contacted the police.

Last week a former prostitute known as "Skinhead Peter" claimed that he had met Manuel's father, Rainer Wolf (40), in Pinocchio before the boy's disappearance. "I saw Rainer Wolf there a number of times before Manuel disappeared. He was talking to the child brothel owner, Lothar Glandorf", he said.

Glandorf is currently serving a prison sentence in the Netherlands for his part in the sex trade. Mr Wolf strenuously denies that he was involved in the under-age sex scene and claims that he has never set foot in Pinocchio.

Since German unification, Berlin has become a magnet for impoverished young people from eastern and central Europe. Poles, Czechs and Hungarians account for most of the male prostitutes in the city, but many young Germans from deprived backgrounds also drift into the prostitution scene.

Pastor Thomas Ulrich, a Protestant minister in the working-class suburb of Neukolln, became worried when he saw young boys sitting outside Datscha, a bar opposite his church. The bar, which has closed down, was a favourite haunt of male prostitutes and their clients, and some of the boys were as young as 12 or 13.

"I felt sorry for the boys themselves, but I was also concerned on behalf of the children who attend our youth club here. I wanted to protect them, so I complained to the police several times. But nothing was done", he said.

Prosecutors are now investigating allegations that two police officers may have offered protection to the pimps and prostitutes in Datscha and Pinocchio. Police say that their inquiries are hampered by the reluctance of witnesses to come forward and by the fact that many of the boys who travel from Berlin to Amsterdam do so voluntarily, in the hope of making money and experimenting with drugs.

When the publicity surrounding the scandal died down towards the end of this week, the mood in Pinocchio was almost euphoric. As bleary-eyed Paul planted a kiss on the forehead of a skinny, dead-eyed boy, he declared that business had never been better. "It must be the newspapers", he said. "Most of these people didn't know where to find us before. Now they know, they'll be back."