The founder of Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), Thierry Darnaudet, this week dismissed child sex abuse claims made against him by the anti-pedophile NGO’s former director, Hang Vibol, and said their feud had created a quandary for the organization when it was asked to investigate Mr. Vibol over similar allegations.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Mr. Vibol on Friday with indecently assaulting children at the Our Home orphanage and school, which were shut down as a result of his arrest earlier in the week, with some 60 children moved to other care centers.
Insisting on his innocence outside the courthouse on Friday, Mr. Vibol claimed Mr. Darnaudet framed him in retaliation for reporting the Frenchman to the Cambodian government in 2013 for child sex abuse and misuse of a huge sum of donor funds.
Suy Sokhon, Mr. Vibol’s lawyer, said Tuesday that he was preparing to file a defamation lawsuit on behalf of his client against Mr. Darnaudet and two former Our Home senior staff members, Keo Pisetdara and Jean Marie Anno, who he claimed filed the complaint.
Speaking from his home in Kolkata, India, on Monday, Mr. Darnaudet acknowledged that his erstwhile friend had filed a complaint to the ministries of interior, social affairs and foreign affairs in 2013—and said all three concluded that the accusations were unfounded.
“He said I have abused kids, but I have been through these allegations with him before and I couldn’t care less what he says, that is for the courts to decide now,” he said.
Mr. Darnaudet said that in truth, Mr. Vibol was enraged about what he saw as the Frenchman’s role in the withdrawal in funding from Our Home over the past three years.
Spanish NGO Global Humanitaria helped establish both Our Home in 1999 and then APLE in 2003, when Mr. Vibol began a two-year stint as its first director before he left on good terms to run the orphanage.
Global Humanitaria continued to fund Our Home until 2012, when it withdrew its funding due to murky financial management, according to Mr. Darnaudet. French organization D’Orleans Checy in Phnom Penh pulled out as a partner the next year.
“They informed me they were close to leaving and I told [Mr. Vibol], then he got paranoid and thought I was behind it,” he said.
Despite being falsely accused by the orphanage director, Mr. Darnaudet said, he was stunned when similar complaints were made against Mr. Vibol.
“I was, and still am, shocked. I have been good friends with Vibol since 1994—he was with me when we first saw what foreigners were doing [to children] and decided to do something, and I helped him get funding to set up his own organization to help protect children,” he said
Mr. Darnaudet repeated assertions by current APLE director Samleang Seila that the organization only became involved in Our Home’s case after being asked to help by the Ministry of Social Affairs, which received complaints from two former Our Home staff members via two international NGOs, Friends International and First Step Cambodia.
The APLE founder said it was obvious that the personal feud between him and his former director would cause problems for the organization in the media and that some would suggest it was conflict of interest, or worse.
“It was not good for authorities to ask us to look at this case, because of the previous accusations against me and the case in the courts. We knew it would come back,” he said, adding that although he had retired as APLE president in 2014, he warned the ministries involved.
“I expressed that perhaps APLE was not the best choice to investigate,” he said. “But what if the claims are true and we did not investigate?
In the latter case, he said, not only would APLE have failed to do the job it was founded to do but—as a result of the history between Mr. Vibol and himself—would also have raised suspicions over why it had stayed away from the case.
“In the end, I believe APLE is the best at investigating such cases, but it was a very difficult decision Mr. Seila had to make,” he said.
Mr. Vibol claimed on Friday that Mr. Pisethdara and Mr. Marie Anno were acting at the behest of Mr. Darnaudet.
Mr. Darnaudet said he knew both of the men, but could not comment further in the interest of due process. He denied that either he or APLE had anything to do with the complaints against Mr. Vibol.
Since leaving the organization, Mr. Darnaudet said he had been developing new projects that would bring the expertise he acquired with APLE to other developing nations, by training existing child protection groups to better investigate cases alongside police.
In an email Tuesday, Ester Martinez Teruel, a representative for Global Humanitaria in Cambodia, said the organization had no contact with Mr. Vibol since withdrawing funding.
“[A]mong several projects [we were] financing in Cambodia was OUR HOME, until July, 2012. Since then, we have not had further relation with this NGO or with its director, Vibol Hang,” said Ms. Martinez Teruel. “Global Humanitaria has financed also APLE organization in Cambodia since 2003, [a] relation that we keep at present.”
In support of Mr. Vibol’s claims that Mr. Darnaudet was behind the funding withdrawal, Mr. Sokhon, the lawyer, said Tuesday that the organizations that pulled out were all connected to Mr. Darnaudet, while two French NGOs that were long-term partners with no ties to the Frenchman remained supportive of his client’s work.
“There are two organizations in France who supported [Mr. Vibol] because they know he is a good person,” Mr. Sokhon said, naming the groups as Our Home France and Les Amis de Our Home.
A spokesperson for Our Home France on Tuesday said the organization would not comment on the charges facing the former director of its orphanage and school in Phnom Penh.
“As the case is ongoing…I cannot give you any information related to your questions,” the spokesperson said in an email.
“Only Mr. Hang Vibol can decide what action to take and the direction of his defense.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Hang Vibol was arrested on March 5. He was arrested on March 3.
© 2015, Simon Henderson. All rights reserved.