In a judgment of the 2nd of February 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found a violation of Article 3 (procedural obligation to conduct an effective investigation) of the European Convention of Human Rights, on the account of the Bulgarian authorities’ failure to conduct an effective investigation into allegations of sexual abuse in a Bulgarian orphanage.
X, Y and Z, three Bulgarian children who were living in an orphanage, were 9, 10 and 12 when they were adopted by an Italian couple. Soon after the adoption, the adoptive parents became suspicious about the traumatic experiences X, Y and Z might have have had in the orphanage, with strong evidence indicating they had been subject to sexual abuse. Parents reported their suspicions to different Italian authorities. The children notably followed therapy sessions with Italian psychologists. These sessions were recorded and transmitted to the Bulgarian authorities, with a request for them to conduct an investigation into the allegations which transpired from these sessions.
Additionally, the adoptive father contacted the Bulgarian State Agency for Child Protection (SACP) to report it. Months later, the SACP ordered an inspection of the orphanage and informed the prosecutor’s office. The Italian police authorities conducted an investigation, which resulted in the discontinuance of the case, based on the lack of evidence that any abuse had been committed. A year later, the Bulgarian authorities confirmed this judgment.
Despite the repeated requests from the Italian authorities, the Bulgarian authorities did not put any measure in place to assist and support the children, both in their qualities of victims and witnesses. The Court itself observes that they could have requested to interview the children themselves, to conduct a medical examination or to access the video recordings of the children’s conversations with the Italian psychologists. Because of the seriousness of the allegations, the Court assesses that serious investigative measures should have been put into place, such as surveillance of the orphanage or interception of telephone and electronic messages, in compliance with the right to respect for private life.
The Court’s findings
The Court therefore concluded that the Bulgarian authorities “had not taken all reasonable measures to shed light on the present case and had not undertaken a full and careful analysis of the evidence before them”, leading to inhuman and degrading treatment and a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This judgment is a clear reminder that in case of serious allegations and suspicions of serious crimes, such as children sexual abuse, the authorities have the obligation to conduct an effective investigation and adopt practical measures to clarify the facts declared by the victims.
It also shows us the importance of understanding and recognising the signs of victimisation and trauma with children. This understanding allowed the parents to refer the children to specialists, which was crucial not only for the investigation but most importantly for the children’s recovery from the trauma caused by the abuse. However, the deprivation of access to justice can lead to secondary victimisation, that increases the intensity and/or length of the victims’ trauma. Access to a remedy remains a basic need for victims of crime, especially for serious cases such as child sexual abuse allegations.
Access the Court judgment at: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-207953