Massages, bed-sharing were common at children’s home, survivors say
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 Mbajja, who went on to report Glaser to the child protection unit of Kampala Police in 2018.
Since Glaser’s arrest last year, Mbajja has received a barrage of intimidating calls, texts and messages on social media so virulent that she opened a case of offensive communication and threatening violence with police.
According to a preliminary police report, seen by CNN, one of the five phone numbers used to threaten to “injure or harm” Mbajja is registered in the name of Glaser’s wife, Ingrid Dilen. Dilen was arrested for questioning by police last February during a police raid at Bery’s Place, and later released. She is now in Belgium.
CNN has reached out to Dilen for comment.
Survivors who have spoken out against Glaser, and their relatives, say they have also been subjected to intimidation, as well as a smear campaign, coordinated on a Facebook page titled Justice For Bery.
Patricia said that her mother received what she says was a threatening call from one of Glaser’s friends, demanding that she stop her daughter from standing as a witness. According to Patricia, he warned her mother that she, and the rest of her family, could die “as a result of [her] stupidity.”
Waiting for justice
It is not the first time that girls in Glaser’s care have been dragged through this ordeal.
A spokesperson for Uganda Police, Charles Mansio Twiine, told CNN that in 2013 the police received reports that Glaser was running an illegal children’s home in Kalangala and allegedly abusing the children, the majority of which were between 8- and 11-years-old at the time. Twiine said the girls were interviewed and found to have contraceptive implants: “Can you imagine from the age of 8, 9, 10, to be having an implant?”
Twiine said Glaser told police at the time he had given the girls implants to prevent them from getting pregnant by local boys. The Director of Public Prosecutions continued to gather evidence and ultimately launched a case against Glaser, but when the time came for the girls and their parents to testify, they did not appear in court.
“It devastated us,” Twiine said, adding that the judge had to dismiss the case as a result. “We were worried and disappointed but at the time there wasn’t anything we could do.”
While Glaser was detained, police took Patricia back to the same uncle who had trafficked her when she was 11 years old. With nowhere else to go, she returned to Bery’s Place after Glaser’s release, where she said “things got even worse.” When she warned Glaser he would get arrested again, she says he replied: “Who has the proof?”
Still, she is determined to testify in court, saying that she hopes to get justice for herself and the other girls who say they suffered for years at Bery’s Place.
Each time Glaser’s court date has been rescheduled, Patricia, Sharon and other witnesses have traveled to Masaka High Court, missing school and preparing to give painful testimonies, only to be told proceedings would not happen that day.
Glaser’s legal team have used a range of tactics to try to ensure his release, including applying for a plea bargain deal, which would have seen Glaser deported back to Belgium, lawyers supporting the prosecution and a police source told CNN.
The sources allege that Glaser’s defense have also sought to prevent, or delay, his hearing by demanding proceedings be conducted in Flemish, despite Glaser’s demonstrated English proficiency, and suggesting that he was unfit to stand trial due to a battle with cancer. The head of the Uganda Cancer Institute, who previously declared that Glaser’s condition was manageable in Uganda, recently signed a letter recommending he urgently travel abroad for treatment.
Glaser’s lawyer told CNN that the “lies being peddled about the plea bargain are a crude attempt at circumventing the burden to prove Mr. Glaser’s guilt in court,” and denied that demands for a Flemish translator were attempts to delay the proceedings.
If granted bail, CNN understands that Glaser will travel to Belgium for treatment, but lawyers supporting the prosecution say it is unclear whether he would return to stand trial. In an email sent in error to CNN, German Ambassador to Uganda Albrecht Conze said he had been personally involved in trying to accelerate court proceedings over the past nine months, with the implied aim of ensuring Glaser’s travel to Belgium.
In a subsequent statement to CNN, Conze said the German Embassy had “never taken a stance on the substance of the case” and that “whether or not he [Glaser] is guilty of the charges he is accused of is for the Ugandan judiciary to determine.”
Glaser previously traveled to Belgium for cancer treatment while on bail in connection with the 2013 case, according to the Germany Embassy and his legal team, who say this demonstrates his willingness to return to Uganda to face the court. “Glaser has always been and still is very determined to and shall prove his innocence in the court of law in Uganda,” his lawyer, Kaganzi Lester, said in a statement to CNN.
Equality Now, an NGO fighting to protect the human rights of women and girls globally, told CNN that it was following the developments in Glaser’s case closely, along with its NGO partners in Uganda, including Joy for Children, Raising Teenagers Uganda, and PINA Uganda, “to ensure that there is accountability for the crimes committed and that the victims are able to access justice.”
“There is a developing trend regarding the sexual exploitation of children in Africa where pedophiles, especially from Western countries, take advantage of under-resourced child protection systems, and weaknesses in law enforcement and judicial systems. The Glaser case is just one example of this deeply concerning phenomenon,” Anita Nyanjong, a lawyer and programme officer in Equality Now’s End Sex Trafficking team, said.
“The Ugandan government now has a significant opportunity to send a message to would-be perpetrators of child sexual exploitation and child trafficking that they cannot exploit with impunity and will be held fully accountable for their crimes.”
In the meantime, Patricia and other girls wait to hear what will become of Glaser. But for now, at least, they say they’re beginning to enjoy their lives outside of Bery’s Place.
“The first time I spoke about it was when I was called to the police station in 2019. After I made the statement I went to the washroom, cried and dried my eyes,” remembers Patricia.
“I felt like something heavy had been put off my head.”
“I felt free.”
Edited by Eliza Mackintosh, CNN.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the statement from Glaser’s lawyer was sent by WhatsApp.