Guest post by tf

Much of France is fixated on the televised parliamentary hearings concerning the Outreau sexual abuse scandal, named for the town in the north of the country where the abuse, both actual and invented, was situated. Eighteen people were formally investigated for abuse of children, of whom only four proved to be guilty. The fourteen innocent people and their families endured devastating consequences: some were imprisoned for over three years, and several had their children taken away from them. The widespread belief now in France is that the investigating magistrate (juge d’instruction), Fabrice Burgaud, who prepared the case and ordered the incarcerations, was stunningly incompetent, and that there was a systemic institutional failure in the normal checks on an investigating magistrate’s powers. Politicians and editorialists are calling for a profound reform of the French justice system, with some calling for the a change in, or even the elimination of, the role of investigating magistrate.

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Eighteen people were formally implicated:

One person committed suicide on June 9th, 2002, and is now understood to have been innocent:

  1. François Mourmand: killed himself after almost a year and a half in prison

Seven people were acquitted, at the end the first trial, which ran from May 4th through July 2nd, 2004, in the city of Saint-Omer:

  1. David Brunet: imprisoned for two years, and lost custody of his son
  2. Karine Duchochois: not imprisoned, but was placed under judicial control, with a prohibition against seeing her small son
  3. Christian Godard:imprisoned for two and a half months, charges were dismissed for lack of evidence, but he was required to participate in the nine weeks of trial
  4. Roselyne Godard: imprisoned for one year, four months, and banned from the regions of le Nord and Le Pas de Calais for over three years
  5. Daniel Legrand, father: imprisoned for two and a half years
  6. Odile Marecaux: imprisoned for seven months, and separated from her children for two and a half years
  7. Pierre Martel: imprisoned for two and a half years

Six people were only acquitted on appeal, in a trial in Paris that ran from November 7th through December 1st, 2005:

  1. Thierry Dausque: imprisoned for three years, two and a half months
  2. Franck Lavier: imprisoned for just over three years
  3. Sandrine Lavier: imprisoned for three years
  4. Daniel Legrand, son: imprisoned for two and a half years
  5. Alain Marecaux: imprisoned for almost two years, during which he went on hunger strike three times, recently attempted suicide for the second time
  6. Dominique Wiel: imprisoned for two and a half years, during which he went on hunger strike twice

The only guilty parties were the following four people:

  1. Thierry Delay: sentenced to 20 years in prison
  2. Myriam Delay-Badaoui: sentenced to 15 years in prison
  3. David Delplanque sentenced to 6 years in prison
  4. Aurélie Grenon: sentenced to 4 years in prison

The fourteen innocent people were sucked into the affair as a result of accusations by the abusers, principally Myriam Delay-Badaoui, and supported by the Delays’ four children, who were also their principal victims. The investigating magistrate, Fabrice Burgaud, rather than exhibiting a healthy skepticism, eagerly followed the trail laid down for him by Delay-Badaoui, incarcerating all those she implicated.

According to a timeline in Le Monde, public involvement in the case dates back to February 25th, 2000, when the Delay children are taken into protective custody by child welfare authorities. Questions of sexual abuse arise ten months later, in December 2000, when the children start to talk about their abuse. The people who record their testimony have no formal training in such matters. Investigations begin in January 2001. In Feburary, 2001, Thierry Delay and Myriam Delay-Badaoui are taken into custody. She confesses to some of the crimes, and implicates many people in the abuse of her own children and of more than a dozen other children. Those who are taken into custody by the police for interrogation do not have the right to a lawyer during the first fourty-eight hours. On February 22nd, 2001, Fabrice Burgaud opens his investigation. He is 27 years old at the time, and has been working as a magistrate for six months.

Burgaud would not have been able to keep so many people locked up for so long if the normal checks and balances were working. To place someone in preventive detention, an investigating magistrate must make the request of a judge for liberty and detention (JLD), who is only supposed to grant detention if it is the only means of preventing a unusual disturbance to the public order. However, the JLD allows seventeen of the eighteen people under investigation to be placed in preventative detention. One of the accused, Dominique Wiel, petitions the JLD a hundred and twelve times for release during his two and a half years in prison. All his petitions are denied.

It is only when Burgaud brings his case to trial that the inconsistencies and lack of evidence are revealed. Part of the indictment is based on expert testimony regarding the credibility of the children’s statements. But the experts who Burgaud engaged seem hardly qualified. On May 18th, 2004, Myriam Delay-Badaoui admits to her false denunciations. Inexplicably, the court only acquits seven people, convicting ten. During the trial on appeal, on November 18th, 2005, Myriam Delay-Badaoui, Thierry Delay, and Aurélie Grenon all admit to their false denunciations, and David Delplanque confirms that there are only four guilty parties. The other six accused are acquitted.

The uproar in France was such that the minister of justice and the prime minister met with the falsely accused, to present their apologies. President Jacques Chirac wrote to them on December 5th, 2005, to apologize, calling the events an unprecedented judicial disaster”.

Now the parliamentary commission has started its inquiries. Such a commission is a bit unusual in France, where high profile investigations are usually initiated by the president or his government, and not by parliament acting as an independent body. The inexperience shows. At first, there was confusion about which hearings would be open and which would be closed, and what the rules would be. Could someone who was giving testimony simply ask for a closed hearing, or should the person have to give a good reason for the hearing to be closed? More recently, the head of the commission, André Vallini (Socialist), has said that the former accused could sit in silent witness during the hearing of the magistrate Burgaud, giving rise to accusations that the commission was being run as a show trial. This atmosphere of a show trial was further reinforced when the commission’s reporter, Philippe Houillon (Gaullist), stated that Burgaud should resign, even before the magistrate has appeared before the commission.

The former accused have already testified. The hearings were open at their request. One aspect of their appearance that was much commented upon is the modest background of most of them. If they had been better off, would they have endured so many months in jail before being acquitted?

Fabrice Burgaud is due to testify on Wednesday, February 8th. He has also asked for an open hearing. Much of France is expected to tune in.

Burgaud is in his early thirties now. I wonder if his appearance will lead France to rethink its system of appointing as magistrates young people who are fresh out of school with hardly any experience of life. To become a magistrate, one has to have a Bachelors degree, then pass the competitive entry exam for the Ecole Nationale de la Magistrature. To be eligible to apply, a candidate must be no older than 27!

What is most surprising to me in this whole affair is that it took France unaware. Yet it is well known what sort of hysteria can arise around cases of alleged child abuse. The crime is so awful that people’s zeal to convict can easily overwhelm evidence and judgment. The United States and Great Britain went through a number of such cases twenty years ago, associated with day-care centers.

But perhaps another and more recent case had a greater influence here. In the late 1990s, in Belgium, a man named Marc Dutroux, along with his associates, raped six adolescent girls, killing four of them. Belgian authorities were widely felt to have been too passive in pursuing Dutroux and in uncovering the ring of people who worked with him. On October 26th, 1996, in the largest demonstration Belgium has ever seen, 300,000 people took to the streets in the White March” (so-called because many wore white) to protest the authorities’ inaction. Outreau, in the north of France, is not so far from Belgium.