Australia Outraged Over Its Own 'Josef Fritzl'

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WILLIAM WEST / AFP / Getty Images

A display outside a Melbourne shop on Sept. 17, 2009, shows rows of the Herald-Sun headline story of an Australian man alleged to have raped his daughter almost daily for 30 years

In 2005, an Australian woman in her 40s gathered the bravery to approach police in the southern state of Victoria. With the encouragement of a concerned neighbor, she told the officer on duty at the Victorian police station that she had been kept a virtual prisoner by her own father for three decades. During this time,she said, he raped her repeatedly, fathering her four children, three of whom survived. Despite the gravity of her allegations, the police could not convince her to press charges. Fearing for her safety, she quietly returned to her life in the rural Latrobe Valley.

The case is only coming to light now in Australia after the Herald Sun, a Melbourne daily, broke the story on Thursday. Two years after approaching the police, the victim filed a restraining order against her father, and in June 2008 she pressed charges. Seven months later, in February, the man now referred as the "Australian Josef Fritzl," was arrested. In his 60s, the man is due to stand trial in November for five charges of rape, five of incest, and one of indecently assaulting a girl under the age of 16. Initially, he denied the accusations, but a DNA test confirmed that all the children were his. The Victoria police have not commented on the case, citing a court-imposed suppression order.

As more horrific details are revealed to an outraged public, one question is being asked again and again: Why didn't anyone do more? The victim reported that her father raped her almost daily from the time she was 11. Her children were all born with severe abnormalities, including a daughter who died after 12 weeks. Though there was no father listed on any of the four birth certificates, evidently no eyebrows were raised in any of the major Melbourne hospitals where she gave birth as to why all of the children of an otherwise healthy young woman had such serious problems. But Bram Alexander, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services, told the Herald Sun on Sept. 17 that hospital staff did all that they could be expected to do in such a case. "A child with a congenital birth defect is hardly a welfare issue," said Alexander. "That is just something that happens from time to time."

This was not the only time that the victim had come into contact with government services. In 2007, she was treated for a mental breakdown, spending several weeks in a Melbourne hospital. Hospital staff never investigated her living situation. In the incident that led her to finally file a restraining order against her father, state authorities fined the victim for damage she caused to the government housing unit that she fled.

The story broke just a day after a damning report was released by the Victorian Ombudsman, accusing the national Department of Human Services of gross misconduct during the 2008-2009 year. The deparment frequently failed to run criminal checks on potential child carers; in one instance, it was found that a social worker had placed three children into the care of a convicted sex offender. To add further embarrassment, Victoria's Community Services Minister Lisa Neville only found out about the incest case on the day the paper ran the story. Australia's conservative opposition, the Liberal Party of Australia, is now calling for Neville to step down. "The clear lack of knowledge that the minister had of any of these issues displays a fundamental failure, and lack of competency on her behalf," said Mary Wooldridge, an MP for the Liberal Party. "She is not doing her job."

Neville, who is still resisting calls to resign, ordered an immediate investigation into the case, and on Sept. 18, she announced a $67 million injection into the child protection workforce, which will include a specialist child protection intervention team and 200 additional workers. Her office did not respond to requests for an interview.

It was, it seems, a case that escaped everyone's attention. The victim's mother, who describes her husband as a "drinker" with a "sharp tongue," told the Herald Sun she had no idea that he had fathered her grandchildren, despite the fact that they were living together. "She used to say something about going out to nightclubs and meeting a fella, but then she would clam up," she told the newspaper. The defendant's wife also had six children with her husband, three of whom died. She says she had been estranged from her daughter since 2005, she says she left home, leaving no word. "I haven't seen her for years," she told the Herald Sun. "The first I knew of all this is when they came and arrested [my husband]."

Unlike the recent cases of Josef Fritzl in Austria and Phillip Garrido in California, the father allowed his daughter to live alone at one stage, but the victim had been discouraged from making friends at an early age. In an interview that appeared in the Australian, a former neighbor confirmed this attitude had stayed with the victim throughout her life, and that her father had always been a domineering force. "When I said to her, 'Do you want to go to the bingo?', [she said] 'Oh no, Dad won't let me'. I thought, 'Dad won't let you?' And you're in your 30s? It didn't make sense to me."

Another former friend also told the Australian that she began to piece things together when she overheard the victim's children addressing her father — their supposed grandfather — as "daddy," asking him if they could take their bicycles for a ride. "I thought, 'Daddy?' It didn't sound right to me. That's not a normal sort of thing.' No, and neither is the fact that this is the third case of this kind of gross incest and child abuse to come to light this year.