Case compared to Catholic Church scandal highlighted in film, “Spotlight”
[Exclusive to The Media Line]
ISTANBUL — A child sex abuse scandal allegedly involving a foundation with close links to the government has made national headlines in Turkey.
A prosecutor in the central Anatolian town of Karaman is demanding 600 years in jail for a teacher accused of sexually abusing ten under-aged boys between the years 2012 and 2015. The teacher is accused of raping nine boys, all born in 2002 and 2003, and forcing another to watch animal pornography.
The alleged abuse occurred in accommodations that the prosecution says is owned by people connected to the Ensar Foundation. Such dormitories for elementary and middle-school children are illegal in Turkey.
Ensar, which provides religious education, scholarships and accommodations to students across Turkey, is known to be close to President Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The foundation has denied owning the housing where the alleged incidents took place, and said the teacher only worked for them for five months in 2013.
“They’re one hundred per cent lying,” Sera Kadıgil, a lawyer and member of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) who recently went to Karaman with a delegation and reviewed all the case files, told The Media Line.
She said that during their testimony, the children and the alleged abuser all said the housing is in fact owned by Ensar. According to the indictment, the teacher works for Ensar and the housing belongs to them.
Kadıgil says Ensar is careful to avoid official connections to the illegal housing and the teachers who give private lessons there. She says Ensar runs perhaps 200 illegal dorms in Turkey.
“[The housing} isn’t connected legally to the Ensar Foundation but they are Ensar Foundation’s houses,” Kadıgil said.
She said that under the AKP, many village schools have closed, forcing children in rural areas to get their education in the nearest town which often offers nowhere for the out of town students to live. Therefore, students end up in environments where they’re vulnerable to abuse, living in illegal dorms run by organizations such as Ensar, often receiving private lessons from unsupervised teachers.
“The people of Karaman demand free education that’s close to home,” Serbay Mansuroğlu, the Turkish journalist who first broke the story on March 13, wrote in an e-mail to The Media Line. “There’s a lack of supervision with these unofficial dormitories and so there’s serious neglect.”
He’s been reporting in Karaman for several weeks, and says according to locals there have been as many as 45 children sexually abused, even though the case at this time only includes ten children.
Kadıgil fears the problem may be widespread and systemic.
“This isn’t one rape. It’s deeper than that,” she said. “If we can’t stop this, there will be another ten kids, and another ten. I’m sure there are hundreds of kids in Turkey now in the exact same situation, but we just don’t know it yet.”
Kadıgil says the state has a constitutional responsibility to look after schoolchildren.
“The state has to open the [dorms]. The state has to inspect them. Not some organization.”
She thinks it’s impossible that Ensar couldn’t have known anything about what was going on in its own housing, but that even if they didn’t know, the incidents are still their responsibility.
“You’re opening an illegal house, and taking kids under the trust of a foundation and [providing them with] a teacher. You don’t have any supervision of this teacher or these houses. These people trusted the foundation.”
Ensar declined to speak with The Media Line, but is publicly claiming the teacher only worked for the organization for five months in 2013, and that they never received complaints about him. The foundation denounced the “defamation campaign” against it, which aims “to hurt the reputation of the faithful rather than condemning the abuse of children.”
On March 21, AKP member of parliament Nihat Öztürk held a press conference in an Ensar office and said the party will continue to support Ensar. Minister of Family and Social Policies Sema Ramazanoğlu was heavily criticized for defending the foundation and calling the abuse scandal a “one-time incident.”
Opposition parties in parliament tried to form a parliamentary commission to examine the case, but the AKP voted against it. However, after much debate, all parties agreed on March 23 to open an inquiry into child sexual abuse in general.
Mustafa Hoş, one of the journalists to bring attention to the story, told The Media Line that Ensar is very close to the AKP and former AKP member President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The foundation’s president Ismail Cenk Dilberoğlu is an AKP provincial assembly member and friends with Erdoğan’s son Bilal. Ensar earned tax-free status in 2012 and has received major donations from the state, as well as tens of thousands of Euros from European Union education programs.
Hoş says the AKP supports Ensar as part of its policy to massively increase religious education.
“Erdoğan said [in 2014] he’d raise a ‘pious generation.’ These schools are part of that project,” he said.
Cemre Soysal, a child psychologist who’s worked with many sexual abuse victims, says such abuse is devastating for kids.
“After being molested, their life is never the same again,” she told The Media Line.
It can lead to lifelong feelings of guilt, shame and worthlessness, and result in behavioral and relationship problems.
Furthermore, the vast majority of cases go unreported, especially in highly conservative towns such as Karaman and in hierarchical Turkish families where children aren’t encouraged to question their elders.
“Almost all children stay silent,” she said.
Kadıgil says this feeling of shame is exploited by child abusers.
“This is why they can rape so easily. Because they know that the family or the kid is going to be ashamed or afraid of being exposed,” she said. “It’s happening every day. We just don’t know about it.”
Turkey’s mainstream media, almost entirely pro-government, at first ignored the story, but a large social media campaign supported by celebrities and activists and resulting in the globally trending hashtag #StopChildRapeInTurkey, spread awareness.
Kadıgil said that thanks to the campaign, the pro-government media can no longer ignore the issue, but still covers it in a non-critical way.
“They’re afraid to mention Esnar Foundation’s name,” she said. “Their only concern is a ‘pervert teacher.’ No one is questioning how this teacher managed to abuse 10 kids for four years.”
The first hearing of the case is scheduled for April 20, but will be closed to the public.