As the trial of alleged pedophile and murderer Marc Dutroux stretches into its second week, attention has focused on the Belgian's claim that he was merely one cog in a network of highly placed child molesters who have been protected by a police cover-up.
It is an allegation that echoes loudly in a number of other European countries, where investigators have recently turned up evidence that pedophilia is a wider and deeper problem than the authorities have been willing to admit.
In Portugal, 10 people, including a former cabinet minister and a former ambassador, are awaiting trial on pedophilia charges linked to a children's home scandal that appears to have been swept under the carpet for decades.
In the Czech Republic, a recent report by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) revealed that children as young as 6 are openly selling sexual services to tourists who pick them up at shopping malls and gas stations near the German border.
And 10 days ago, police across northern Europe launched dawn raids on nearly 50 homes and businesses, smashing a number of Internet child pornography networks that had escaped similar operations in 2002 and 2003.
"You can't say that when you dismantle one or two or three rings the problem ceases to exist," says Evangelos Stergioulis, a spokesman for Europol, the European Union agency coordinating the fight against international crime. "Our investigations will never end. One case will lead to another."
The Dutroux case dragged on for eight years before coming to trial, and "the inefficiency of the police went beyond normal stupidity," says Anne-Marie Lizin, a Belgian senator. The investigators' blunders - including a search of the house where Dutroux had entombed two young girls in a cellar without finding them - have fed widespread suspicions in Belgium of a deliberate cover-up.
Dutroux is charged with the abduction, rape, and murder of four girls and young women in the early 1990s, and with the abduction and rape of two others who were eventually found alive in the cell he had constructed in his basement. He has pleaded not guilty to murder, and claimed last week in court that he was part of "a big crime ring" which he supplied with girls.
Forensic evidence pointing to the presence of people other than Dutroux and his wife in the dungeon was not investigated until two years ago, and will not be brought up at the current trial, the investigating judge has decided.
"There are two hypotheses," says Marc Reisinger, president of For the Truth, a civic group that is angry at the way the Dutroux case has been handled. "Either Dutroux was an isolated criminal, or he was part of a more organized network. The investigation stopped at the doorstep to this question, and the case is based on the hypothesis that he acted on his own."
Nearly 70 percent of Belgians believe Dutroux acted for others, and only 4 percent believe the current trial will reveal the whole truth of the affair, recent opinion polls have shown. Suspicions that well-known figures may have been involved in pedophile crimes are widespread, both because a small-time businessman with connections in top political circles is on trial with Dutroux, charged with kidnapping one girl, and because a senior politician connected to the case died in mysterious circumstances some years ago.
Well-known personalities are a key element of another pedophile scandal elsewhere in Europe. Portugal has been traumatized by a case brought to light a year ago in which two top TV personalities, the spokesman for the opposition Socialist party and a former ambassador, have been charged with abusing children from state-run homes for orphans and disabled youngsters.
The government announced last year, after children from the Casa Pia homes had been examined, that 128 of them - mostly deaf-mutes - showed physical signs of repeated abuse. One of the men charged, Carlos Cruz, is Portugal's best-known TV celebrity, and a man so trusted by his fellow citizens he was chosen to lead the publicity campaign introducing the euro into Portugal.
The evidence investigators have gathered since a local newspaper broke the story suggests that children from the Casa Pia homes have been abused since the mid-1970s. Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio promised that "the impunity which for decades on end has made this case a shame for all of us will finally end."
It is still unclear, however, how the abuse continued for so long. A former minister of family affairs, Teresa Costa Macedo, admitted to parliament last year that she had known about it since 1982, when she sent evidence to the police that was never investigated, she said. She kept silent for 20 years, she claimed, because of death threats.
The secrecy that surrounded events at Casa Pia is strikingly absent, however, at the border between Germany and the Czech Republic, where social workers have watched German and other foreign men buy sex from impoverished children for several years, according to a report released last October by UNICEF.
"The commercial sexual exploitation of children in the German-Czech border districts began to flourish in 1996 and has increased substantially in the years since," the report said. "A key reason for the increasing demand is that larger numbers of sex tourists specifically request children." Girls and boys as young as 6 hang out at gas stations, bus stops, and supermarkets on the Czech side of the border, says the report, written by a German social worker who says she has identified around 500 children prostituting themselves.
Little has been done about this open child-sex market, complains Reinhard Schlagintweit, head of the UNICEF office in Germany, in part because "it is very difficult to get evidence sufficient for a court case. We need greater cooperation between the Czech and German police."
Such international police cooperation is at the heart of Europol, which has made Internet child pornography networks a major target of its work. Late last month, acting on information that Europol intelligence analysts had gathered over many months, police in seven European countries, as well as Canada, Australia, and Peru, seized computers, videos, and pornographic pictures from nearly 50 alleged members of pedophile networks.
Says Europol spokesman Mr. Stergioulis: "Europol is in a position to fight this form of crime."