They were sent to a shelter for safety. Instead, these women say they were sexually abused
Updated 7:53 AM ET, Thu February 13, 2020
This article contains sexually explicit language.
Kampala, Uganda -- When Patricia was picked up by police at the age of 11, she felt relieved.
Sold by an uncle to her teacher, she was raped and abandoned in Kalangala, a district of islands on Lake Victoria, in Uganda.
Patricia thought her luck had changed when police officers from a local station told her there was a man nearby who helped survivors of sexual abuse like her.
"A big, fat, old muzungu [foreigner or white person] came for me. They said he is taking care of girls in your situation," Patricia, who is identified using a pseudonym, told CNN.
"They said Bery is a good person and he will take you. I was a bit afraid, but I said OK since there are other girls there too."
Bernhard "Bery" Glaser, a German national who describes himself as a "retired health professional," founded Bery's Place, a children's home in Kalangala, with his wife in 2006. According to his website, Glaser has provided a home for dozens of girls, some of whom have survived "physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse and violence," or been "trafficked, abandoned -- or rejected -- by their legal guardians."
"For my kids, I'm the mommy, I'm the daddy, I'm everything," Glaser says in a promotional video.
But five women in their late teens and early twenties interviewed by CNN, including Patricia, allege that Glaser sexually and emotionally abused them at Bery's Place. Survivors names have been changed to protect their identities.
The young women say that Glaser subjected them to repeated "vaginal examinations" involving sexual touching and forced them to sleep in his bed, where he allegedly sexually assaulted them. When the girls objected, they say Glaser would threaten to cast them out on the streets. Survivors say this kept many of the girls -- some of whom had previously been abused, or suffered other traumatic experiences -- from speaking out.
Bery's Place is one of hundreds of homes for vulnerable children purported to be operating illegally in Uganda -- children's homes must be registered with the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development under Ugandan law. In 2018, the Ugandan government announced plans to close over 500 unregistered homes in the country. A lack of government oversight combined with an open-door policy for foreign investors and volunteers has left girls like Patricia vulnerable to abuse.
After more than a decade running Bery's Place, Glaser was detained last February, when he turned himself in, then formally charged and arrested in April with 19 counts of human trafficking, seven counts of aggravated defilement, one count of indecent assault and one count of operating an unauthorized children's home. Thirteen girls were found at Bery's Place when police raided the home in February, while others were reportedly at school, according to lawyers supporting the prosecution.
Almost a year on, Glaser's trial has been postponed at least eight times because of requests made by his legal team, including claims he is unfit to stand trial due to an ongoing cancer battle.
Glaser is currently at the Uganda Cancer Institute, awaiting a hearing on his bail application.
In a statement sent by WhatsApp to CNN, a lawyer representing Glaser denied that he had committed the alleged crimes, and emphasized the seriousness of his deteriorating health.
"Mr. Glaser maintains that he has never defiled or trafficked any one and shall prove his innocence in the Court of law in Uganda and has more than enough evidence and witnesses to disprove all the false allegations against him," his lawyer, Kaganzi Lester, said.
'Medical exams' and 'sleeping timetables'
Young women and girls who stayed at Bery's Place told CNN that they went through a so-called "medical examination" upon arrival and frequent "vaginal exams" during their time living there.
Girls as young as five were told to strip naked so that Glaser could examine them and insert candida medicine -- used to treat yeast infections -- into their vaginas, survivors allege, adding that the "exams" often took place in a shower.
Some survivors say Glaser introduced himself as a doctor, but lawyers supporting the prosecution told CNN that he is a physiotherapist -- not a qualified physician.
"I said to him after a few times I can do it myself," said Patricia, now a 20-year-old university student, adding that he continued to insert medicine and a douche into her vagina after her complaints.
"He said I had a small STI, but I don't believe I had any infection," she said, explaining that the police had given Glaser the results of her STI tests when she was placed in his care.
In a 2017 email CNN has seen that sought to explain the controversy to supporters of Bery's Place, Glaser said that the testing was in line with "professional standards."
"The only time I touch(ed) my girls in an intimate way, is when I apply medicine, and this in an appropriate way to professional standards, with their personal approval, part of the sexual health services we provide often in cooperation with professional third parties, doctors, nurses, midwives," he wrote.
But some survivors say these "medical examinations" were just a precursor to more abusive patterns of behavior.
"One time I walked into Bery's room and found some younger children massaging him while he was half naked," remembers Sharon, now 17, who was 12 when she was taken to Bery's Place. She says that Glaser asked her to join in, claiming that he needed to be massaged because of his cancer and diabetes.
Sharon, and several other survivors, said that Glaser asked them to create a "sleeping timetable" for the girls to spend the night in his bed on a rotating schedule. "He told us not to put that timetable in the living room, because visitors might come and start asking what it's for," Sharon said.
"The first time I slept in his room he started massaging me in the middle of the night, touching my breasts, kissing my lips," Sharon said. Other girls interviewed by CNN described Glaser penetrating them with his fingers and forcing them to perform oral sex on him, saying it was "normal in his culture."
The age of consent is 18 in Uganda and, according to the country's Children Act Amendment of 2016, "every child has a right to be protected against all forms of violence including sexual abuse."
Sharon said that when she threatened to report Glaser, he told her she could "go back to the bush where you came from." After that, she was fearful to speak out. With nowhere else to turn, she says she stayed at Bery's Place for five years, sleeping in Glaser's room once a week.
Survivors who spoke with CNN said the threat of instability -- being left homeless, without money for food or school fees -- was what kept them quiet for so long and even resulted in some of them defending Glaser when he was first arrested in 2013.
A system that perpetuates abuse
To cover up the alleged abuse, Glaser bribed local officials and used his network of allies in Kalangala to threaten those who spoke out against him, according to survivors and a police officer formerly based in the district, who spoke with CNN.
Glaser's lawyer said he denied the bribery allegations.
Child advocates and social workers say that it's not difficult for men like Glaser to abuse Ugandan girls with impunity, given the power dynamics that perpetuate the country's unregulated and lucrative orphanage industry.
"When you see a white person here you think they're coming with the biggest opportunities, so people like Bery Glaser are able to use their privilege to oppress and exploit our people," says Olivia Alaso, co-founder of No White Saviors, which has helped provide safe accommodation and psychosocial support for girls who lived at Bery's Place.
"The government should be doing thorough and proper checks on their backgrounds at home [before granting visas], and also the work these people are doing in our communities."
Alaso added that the red flags in this case were glaring: "How can a man live in a shelter with all these girls at a minor age and no one does a thing?"
While regulation of the orphanage industry by Uganda's government has improved over the past five years, only certain parts of the country have seen a change.
Caroline Bankusha, a child protection expert and former probation officer, says that part of the issue is a lack of alternative care options in Uganda. "In Bery's case, was it really necessary for the parents to hand over their girls to the care of a stranger? If they had to be separated from their parents, was Bery's orphanage the most suitable for the care of the girls, or were there other options?"
Lawyers supporting the prosecution told CNN that they understood Glaser used "legal guardianship orders" to gain custody of some of the girls -- a now banned loophole which, until 2016, was often used by foreign nationals to adopt Ugandan children quickly and easily, without fostering them in-country for the then three years required by law.
Glaser's lawyer would not comment on the use of legal guardianship orders, saying it was "one of the issues to be resolved in court."
Another obstacle is a culture where sexual abuse often goes unreported -- by survivors and others -- despite policies and structures in place, Bankusha says. According to the Uganda Violence Against Children Survey 2018, one in three girls ages 18 to 24 reported experiencing sexual violence during childhood, including 11% of girls experiencing pressured or forced sex.
Andy Wilkes, a British builder who spent a month volunteering at Bery's Place in 2017, told CNN that he had suspected abuse was taking place after seeing young girls sleeping in Glaser's bed, but was not sure who to report it to. Wilkes says a young woman later confirmed his suspicions, alleging to Wilkes that Glaser had abused her using "toys, vibrators, fingers, masturbation, blow jobs," since she was 12.
Wilkes contacted a local Ugandan social worker with connections to Bery's Place, Asia Namusoke Mbajj