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A Wrenching Way to Jail an Abuser

In first such case, a trial in the Philippines proves messy

Not unlike the man serving a jail sentence for luring her into prostitution, Gloria Limpat is a prisoner. A slight, fine-featured girl of 16, she is compelled to live in an overcrowded home for children run by the Philippine government.

Gloria's testimony against Victor Fitzgerald, a retired Australian businessman, resulted this May in a legal milestone for the Philippines: the first conviction under a law passed in 1992 to protect children from abuse and exploitation.

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As in other countries where the sexual exploitation of children has caused international concern, the government in the Philippines is trying to crack down on those who abuse young people or push them into prostitution. But the conviction of Mr. Fitzgerald illustrates just how complex such prosecutions can be, especially for the children involved.

The case is a story of contradictory testimony from Gloria, of a legal system that would not have worked without pressure from a child advocate, and of an outcome that leaves no one familiar with the case very happy. Unhappiest of all is Fitzgerald, who rails from his cell in the Olongapo City jail against the conspiracy of forces that he says has unjustly convicted him.

"They needed a scapegoat, and they got [me]," he says. He denies sexually abusing children.

Fitzgerald's main nemesis, as he sees it, is an Irish Catholic priest, the Rev. Shay Cullen, who has worked as a missionary in the Philippines since the late 1960s. Fr. Cullen runs an organization based in Olongapo City near Manila, called the Preda Foundation, that provides a home for abandoned or impoverished children, offers drug rehabilitation services, and runs a variety of development projects.

In late 1993, Cullen spotted Fitzgerald's yacht - his retirement home - in the waters near Preda's headquarters. His suspicions aroused by the presence of children on the boat, he had it watched. In January 1994, Cullen asked local police to investigate. Although Fitzgerald was found aboard with three Philippine children, including Gloria, the investigating officer decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Fitzgerald for wrongdoing.

A few months later, Cullen sought the help of federal law-enforcement officials in Manila, the Philippine capital, and urged Gloria and a friend, Jacqueline Purificacion, to file rape and child-abuse charges against Fitzgerald. The cases were tried before separate judges in Olongapo City.

Fitzgerald was acquitted of offenses against Jacqueline, partly because Gloria testified that the Australian had not sexually assaulted them. But in her own case, Gloria testified that Fitzgerald, in September 1993, had fondled and attempted intercourse with her and sexually assaulted other children on his boat. She also said Fitzgerald bought the children clothing and gave them money. At the time Gloria was 13.

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Judge Leopoldo Calderon Jr., ruling on the case involving Gloria, acquitted Fitzgerald of rape but convicted him of trying to entice her into prostitution through gifts of money or other goods. Concluding that the Australian had sexually abused Gloria, Judge Calderon sentenced him to eight to 17 years in jail and ordered him to pay Gloria 50,000 pesos ($1,900).

As in many sexual crimes, convicting the abuser in this case was a matter of believing the victim. Calderon, in his ruling, writes that Gloria "was under intense pressure not to divulge the sexual abuses she encountered." As a result, statements she made absolving Fitzgerald "cannot be considered as impeaching evidence."

The Australian, arguing that he was "convicted on the evidence I was acquitted on," is appealing Calderon's decision to a higher court. His only crime, he says, was being generous to the poor people he met in the Philippines.

Some Filipinos in Olongapo agree with him, including Gloria's mother. Maria Consuelo Limpat, an illiterate laundry woman who lives in a one-room bamboo shack set on stilts on a hillside near Olongapo. She chooses to believe her daughter's denials rather than her statements implicating Fitzgerald. "According to Gloria, he never molested her," she says. "He treated her as a young daughter. He was very thoughtful to her, and she brought food here."

Throughout the case, Gloria was pulled in different directions. The priest, Cullen, encouraged her to testify against Fitzgerald. Her mother and friends told her not to. The Philippine child-care bureaucracy, the Department of Social Welfare and Development, sued for state custody on the grounds that her mother was too negligent to raise Gloria.

Some Olongapo municipal officials, defensive about their city's reputation, urged her to accuse Cullen of paying her to lie about Fitzgerald. That charge was later investigated and dropped by a prosecutor from the Philippine Department of Justice. But both Calderon and Lina Laigo, the country's top welfare official, agree that the case would not have come to a conclusion without Cullen.

Why, in the end, did Gloria incriminate Fitzgerald? "Because I wanted to defend myself," she says in a whispery voice. She told conflicting stories, she says, "because I was controlled by people, especially my mother and uncle who told me that I will have a big amount of money if I side with Fitzgerald." The mother and the uncle deny that the Australian attempted any form of bribery, as does Fitzgerald.

Adelina Apostol, a social worker who sued for state custody of Gloria and runs the home where she now lives, acknowledges that the girl's circumstances are not ideal. Sixty-four children live in the home, which consists of two bedrooms, a common room, a kitchen, and staff offices. Bars and wire caging keep intruders out and the children in, when they are not attending school. "We are really congested," says Ms. Apostol.

But in cases like Gloria's, "We cannot do anything [other than sue for custody], because the parents are tolerating this kind of abuse." Mrs. Limpat, the mother, does not seem to have intentionally exploited her daughter. Instead she seems to have ignored the littlest of her eight children, letting her roam the streets, skip school, and drift into situations where her youthful trust was abused.

The mother had no answer when asked in an interview about the state's charges of parental neglect. Apostol says the woman now visits her daughter regularly and that Gloria "yearns for her mother, despite what happened."

In other ways, too, Gloria seems to be on the mend. Apostol says that where she was once withdrawn and violent, Gloria has taken on a "big sister" role in the home. "She can be trusted with any assigned task now," the social worker observes. "And she's very interested in her studies."

The case is a story of contradictory testimony and a legal system that would not have worked without pressure from a child advocate.

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