The orphanage, a large brick house in Tirana’s old quarter, promised shelter to the city’s abandoned street children, who came barefoot and clutching siblings in search of a place to rebuild their lives.
For five years, dozens of boys and girls passed through the gates of 32 Dervish Hekali Street, run by British missionaries in Albania’s capital.
But what should have been a sanctuary for vulnerable boys and girls became the site of one of eastern Europe’s most shocking child sex abuse scandals. Three evangelical Britons, including the director of the orphanage, David Brown, have been accused of abusing children in their care.
The trials of Brown, 57, and two helpers at his shelter — Dino Christodoulou, 45, a social therapy nurse from Blackburn, Lancashire, and Robin Arnold, 56, a salesman from Cromer, Norfolk — have barely been reported outside Albania.
But disturbing testimony from children delivered by video link to a small Tirana court will have far-reaching repercussions for child protection mechanisms between the UK and other countries.
Who knew what about the abuse, how and when, are questions that have yet to be fully answered. The men themselves, in interviews inside their prison, did not deny that the abuse took place; instead they blamed each other for acts that have horrified Albania.
But there are some facts about the story that has been unfolding in district court one that nobody disputes.
It was in early 2000 that Brown, a charity worker from Edinburgh, traveled to Albania to help refugees who had crossed the border, fleeing the conflict in Kosovo. He encountered neglected Gypsy children begging on the streets and supported them with food and money.
The following year, with support from churches in Albania and the UK, he set about opening an orphanage which, claiming to be receiving instructions from God, Brown named His Children.
Missionaries affiliated with churches as far away as Oklahoma traveled to Tirana to care for the children and give Bible lessons. Brown became a well-known figure in Tirana; a tall man with a thick, white beard, he was often seen scouring the city’s streets for children in need.
“He bought me biscuits, a coke and gave me 500 leke [US$5.04],” said one of Brown’s first recruits to the orphanage, Nazmi Tatushi, now 21. “I had no shoes. No haircut. Stinking.”
One of four young men who live in an apartment paid for by Brown, and have testified in his favor in court, Tatushi said: “David said to me: My son, why don’t you come to my house? He was a good man for the street kids in Albania. Only ever did we see love in that house.”
That, according to the testimony of other children, would soon change. By 2004 Brown, who worked with children for 35 years in Scotland, had developed a tense relationship with Albanian social workers, who complained his home lacked the facilities for 40 children and babies.
By his own admission he failed to check the backgrounds of all the missionary volunteers who were given unsupervised access to children. He also allowed two young boys into his bed when they complained of nightmares, something he later described as “naive.”
When, in October that year, children began to speak about being sexually abused at the home, Brown, who was at first not named by the children as a perpetrator, devised a plan with the help of a close-knit group of evangelical Christians to keep the complaints secret from the Albanian authorities.
Brown said he concealed the sexual abuse suffered by children at his orphanage from the Albanian authorities because he feared they would close the shelter, and now regretted doing so.
Christodoulou and Arnold were banned from the orphanage after Brown said children had identified them as abusers. Eighteen months later, in May 2006, the scandal made headline news across the country after Albanian police and social services raided the orphanage and arrested Brown following a tip-off about allegations of sexual abuse.
Ten boys, aged between four and 13, eventually told police they had been sexually abused by one or more of the three Britons, who have been charged with “homosexual relations with minors.”
Christodoulou and Arnold were extradited to Albania in May. In some cases the children claimed to have been bound to a balcony, gagged and raped.
Defence lawyers claim the children are unreliable witnesses who have been “manipulated” by the prosecution.
Although their trial is continuing, the men, who if found guilty could face up to 20 years in jail, spoke to us in Prison 302, a drab ex-communist jail.
Through iron bars, Brown accused Christodoulou and Arnold of abusing boys behind his back.
“They were wolves in sheep’s clothing,” he said. “I came to Albania because I wanted to help the Albanian children. Everything that I set out to do has been violated. I was these children’s father.”
A verdict in Brown’s trial, which rests on accusations from two boys, is expected this week. Lawyers believe the outcome may determine the fate of Christodoulou and Arnold. Their trial — which is separate from Brown’s — began last month.
Christodoulou faces the most serious allegations — eight boys say he sexually abused them. But, smiling, Christodoulou dismissed the accusations against him as “absurd.”
“I suspect [abuse] did happen at the home,” he said. “I have been stitched up to take the blame for what the others have done. The children have been manipulated to say these things.”
Arnold also denied abusing children at the orphanage, but admitted he had twice been convicted of indecently assaulting teenage boys in the UK. He said it was “obvious” abuse was rife at the home.
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