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French doctor accused of abusing 349 children faces trial

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The judiciary files of retired French surgeon Joel Le Scouarnec are displayed on the opening day of his trial in the courthouse of Saintes
The judiciary files of retired French surgeon Joel Le Scouarnec are displayed on the opening day of his trial in the courthouse of Saintes   -   Copyright  Francois Mori/AP
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A retired surgeon accused of sexually abusing as many as 349 young children over decades – primarily his patients, in their hospital rooms — is facing justice at last, in the worst such case to come to light in France.

The trial opening Friday in the western city of Saintes is only the beginning, however.

It concerns four people allegedly targeted by Joel Le Scouarnec, 69, including two of his nieces. Other legal complaints against the doctor have piled up since the original investigation wrapped up, and prosecutors are preparing further action after this trial.

The first case reached investigators in 2017 when a 6-year-old neighbour told her mother that Le Scouarnec exposed himself and molested her across the fence between their properties.

More than 300,000 images of child abuse images and pornography

In searching Le Scouarnec’s home, investigators uncovered more than 300,000 images of child abuse and other pornography — as well as extensive notebooks where the surgeon detailed sexual violence against both girls and boys from 1989 to 2017. Next to each child's name were comments on the nature of the sexual acts inflicted, according to investigators.

Le Scouarnec admitted to investigators that he had "already acted out” with children, including his nieces. He said he set limits for himself and denied any full penetration. He claimed his diaries included an element of fantasy.

The regional prosecutor, Laureline Peyrefitte, told a news conference in December that the number of “potential victims of Le Scouarnec's actions" had reached 349 by that point.

The accused faces up to 20 years in prison

Gendarmes questioned 229 of the people named in the notebooks, and by this month, 200 had filed formal complaints, the prosecutor's office told The Associated Press. Many incidents occurred too long ago to prosecute, however.

Investigators say that under cover of medical acts, the doctor sexually took advantage of children as soon as they were alone in their hospital room. They say his strategy was to pass off sexual violence as a professional gesture and to target patients so young they might not remember or understand what was happening.

He also targeted older children in the operating room, when they were asleep or under anaesthesia, according to his diaries.

With victims so young, or unconscious, Le Scouarnec was able to act without aggression or threats, prosecutors say. And so many years later, there is no way to trace for sperm or DNA.

Critics ask why nothing came out before. The surgeon had already been sentenced in 2005 to a four-month suspended prison sentence for possession and importation of a child pornographic image.

The trial opening Friday concerns the neighbour, two nieces, and a child who was hospitalised at the age of four for acute pancreatitis in the establishment where the surgeon practised.

Le Scouarnec faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

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