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Fighting The Child Sex Trade

May 4, 2000 · 

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Published in the USNEWS
May 04, 2000

OLONGAPO, PHILIPPINES – Pia Agustin Corvera became a prostitute at the age of 9. An aunt who raised her in a Manila slum rented her to foreign men with Pia receiving 120 pesos–$3–for each encounter. After three years, according to a social worker’s report, she was sold to a visiting German pedophile. Today, the morose 16-year-old with a ravaged psyche and an uneasy smile has found refuge here in a therapeutic community for child victims of sexual abuse run by a 57-year-old Irish priest, the Rev. Shay Cullen. The tiny Filipino girl is slowly learning to trust again, and while understandably shy, she describes with brutal simplicity the sum of her experiences. Says Pia: “I felt like garbage.”

From Cape Town to Costa Rica–two emerging child sex hot spots–disparate factors are spurring demand and forcing growing numbers of children into prostitution. They include mounting Third World poverty, the rise of criminal mafias in Russia and Eastern Europe, the spread of sex tourism, and the Internet pornography boom. Fear of AIDS is driving men to seek younger partners in the mistaken belief that they are less likely to be infected. Interpol’s Agnes Fournier de Saint Maur, who tracks global child sex trends, says the demand comes not only from pedophiles but from men eager to push the envelope of carnal exploration. Until recently, the problem barely registered on the radar of international concern.

Today, passionate activists like Cullen have raised global awareness to the point where the United Nations and human-rights groups have made child protection an increasing priority. Some 21 nations have now passed laws to prosecute molesters for crimes committed overseas.

After decades of complacency, Philippine authorities–thanks in part to Cullen’s aggressive lobbying–are cracking down on foreigners drawn here by entrenched pedophile networks, rampant sex tourism, and a population of child prostitutes estimated by the United Nations at more than 60,000. Olongapo, former home of the huge United States naval base at Subic Bay, and Angeles City, where the U.S. Air Force operated a large base at Clark Field, each had a long-established vice trade involving underage girls and catering to American service personnel. After the U.S. military departed in 1992, aggressive marketing by Philippine red-light entrepreneurs turned Angeles and Olongapo into two of the Pacific region’s most rancid fleshpots.

Naval evasion. Cullen came here as a missionary in 1969, opened his PREDA Foundation for at-risk youngsters in 1974 (www.preda.org), and had his first jarring experience with child prostitution in July 1982, when nuns running a local health clinic found girls ages 9, 12, and 13 suffering from venereal disease. “The kids said they had been used by American sailors, but the naval authorities told us to keep quiet so they could catch the perpetrators,” Cullen recalls. But in dozens of cases, he charges, the Navy shipped out suspects to avoid prosecution. The coverup by U.S. and Philippine authorities sparked the outrage that drives Cullen’s relentless campaign, and the priest has received death threats and other intimidation attempts. He runs his residential foundation for 70 girls and boys, prowls the Olongapo and Angeles vice districts searching for underage prostitutes, lobbies for tougher laws, and raises funds.

His efforts have helped to convict dozens of men here and overseas. A 66-year-old Australian who sailed into Subic Bay with three Filipino children ages 4, 6, and 13 years, and moored within sight of PREDA and Cullen’s surveillance, is now serving eight to 17 years in a Philippine prison. Cullen is credited by Scotland Yard with tracking down two British pedophile fugitives hiding in Olongapo who were later convicted of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old London boy. Last February, Norwegian police said information from the priest helped them break up a ring bringing Filipino boys into the country.

One of Cullen’s most satisfying convictions was that of Pia’s abuser, who jumped bail in Manila and fled back to Germany, one of the 21 nations (including the United States) that permit domestic prosecution for child sex crimes committed abroad. The priest and the young victim traveled to Germany to testify, and the pedophile received a 31/2-year jail sentence.

Cullen’s work has earned him international recognition, and Nigel Griffiths, a member of the British Parliament, recently nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Says Griffiths: “He has done tremendous work against enormous odds and helped strengthen child protection laws around the world.” Yet for every child he helps, Cullen knows, there are countless other Pias still on the streets.

By Michael Satchell

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