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03.31.09

Are There More Dungeon Dads?

Two weeks after the conviction of the Austrian father who enslaved and raped his daughter, two similar cases have emerged. Barbie Nadeau reports on the crimes of incest that are on the rise.

Two international incest cases—one in Turin, Italy, and another in Honda, Colombia—have emerged since Josef Fritzl of Austria was convicted of murder, incest, and slavery two weeks ago. The three similarly horrifying cases beg the question: How many more Josef Fritzls are out there?

In Colombia, widower Arcebio Alvarez, 59 years old, was jailed over the weekend for allegedly abusing his daughter, Alba Nidia Alvarez, 35, since she was just nine years old. He fathered 14 children with her, eight of whom survived. The youngest child is one. The children were all born at home and the circumstances around the deaths of five children remain a mystery. Authorities in Colombia say that Alvarez lived with the victim and their children on a ranch near the village of Honda until nine months ago when Alba Nidia took her five daughters and moved to a nearby village. Local investigators say she worked 14-hour days at a small café to support her daughters, who were often left alone. She did not come forward until her oldest son, now 19, and a local priest threatened to go to the police after the Fritzl case came to light. “I took this decision according to the will of God, thanks to a pastor who prayed for me many times," she told a local newspaper. "That is what gave me the strength."

Laura tried to tell social workers about the abuse, but her father convinced them that she was mentally ill.

Alvarez doesn’t deny the relationship he had with his daughter, who he says was free to come and go from the ranch, but who was rarely seen without her father. His defense attorney, Ricardo Correa, also says that Alba Nidia is not his biological daughter, though she maintains she was raised by him under the assumption that she was his daughter. She was left in his care when her mother died just after her fifth birthday. Alvarez told the court that the eight children he fathered are not products of incest. “We were in a consensual relationship,” he told the court at his arraignment for incest and sexual assault. “We really loved each other.”

Meanwhile in Turin, local media have dubbed 63-year-old Michele Mongelli the Italian Fritzl. Last week the scrap-metal dealer was arrested and charged with sexual assault and enslavement for abusing his daughter, Lucia, for 25 years. She told police that her father was sexually violent and kissed her on the mouth from the time she was nine. She also testified that he forced her to have sexual intercourse from the time she was 16.

Lucia’s brother, 40-year-old Giuseppe Mongelli, was also arrested for sexually abusing his own four young daughters. Lucia and Giuseppe’s seven other siblings deny their father was abusive, but social workers were called to the house on several occasions after reports from school officials. Giuseppe and one of Michele’s other sons wear tattoos of their father’s face on their left arms. Lucia, who dropped out of school at age 13, tried to tell social workers about the abuse, but her father convinced them that she was mentally ill. Lucia's mother says her husband is innocent. “My husband goes around to metal markets,” the elder Mongelli’s wife told police. “He was also a cat burglar, breaking into houses at night to support our family, but he has never done any of these disgusting things.”

Still, police in Turin say they were able to confirm the violence through phone taps between the father and son, who bragged to each other about the abuses. The older Mongelli was overheard encouraging his son to commit sexual abuse on his grandchildren, even advising his son on how to avoid injury. Local Turin newspapers published pictures of the contents of the family homes, which contained religious icons like statues and crucifixes. Police say both men reveled in the “psychological terror” they inflicted on their victims.

Incest cases are on the rise in Europe, Asia, and North America, according to children’s advocacy groups. In the U.K. alone, reported cases of incest have risen by 10 percent in the last decade. In Finland, that number is 15 percent. In America, an estimated 5 percent of all children have suffered incest by the time they are 18.

Sadly, that means discovering the next Josef Fritzl is only a matter of time.

Barbie Latza Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel magazine and Frommer's.