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Shadow of Fritzl falls over Austria again

YET another “captive child” horror story is shaking Austrian society.

This time it apparently took 41 years for the nation to discover that an 80-year-old man had imprisoned, raped and beaten his two mentally disabled daughters throughout their lives.

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The case amplifies concerns raised by two other recent high-profile cases in which domestic abuse on a similar scale also went unnoticed for years.

In 2008, Josef Fritzl, now 76, was found to have imprisoned his daughter, Elisabeth, then 42, in his basement for 24 years and fathered seven children by her, one of whom died shortly after birth having been denied medical treatment. Fritzl was sentenced to life in March 2009 and is currently in a facility for the criminally insane in Upper Austria.

Two years earlier, Natascha Kampusch, then 18, was discovered in a Vienna street having escaped eight years of captivity and abuse in the cellar of Wolfgang Priklopil, 44, who killed himself by jumping in front of a train after her escape.

In this current case, Christine and Erika Wagner, 53 and 42 respectively, have told police that their father, Gottfried, 80, a former road construction worker, has subjected them to a reign of terror, violence and sexual abuse since 1970. They say he treated his wife Berta, their mother, in a similar fashion until her death in 2008, when her daughters were made to swear an oath of silence on her deathbed.

Wagner is alleged to have threatened to skewer them all with a pitchfork and shoot them dead with one of his two guns.

The daughters’ living conditions were cramped and squalid. They were forced to sleep on small benches in a kitchen and had access only to a commode rather than a toilet. There is no evidence of any pregnancies occurring, according to the police, although no precautions were taken. Gottfried Wagner denies all the allegations.

The Wagner daughters were not locked in a dungeon or cellar like the ones used in the Kampusch and Fritzl cases. Theirs was a psychological one.

Psychiatrist Adelheid Kastnerdem said: “When you are threatened on the one hand and, on the other, you do not trust your ability to get on in the outside world, then a manipulative ‘cage’ can be very effective.”

Calls are growing for an explanation of how such extreme mistreatment eluded the attention of the authorities for so long. A nurse had visited the Wagner house since 1998, initially to look after Berta, and since March this year a disability nurse came in for 20 hours a month because one of the sisters has trouble walking. In the three years since their mother died, the daughters have also had a state guardian.

And didn’t the neighbours notice? The sleepy hamlet of St Peter near Braunau, best known as the birthplace of Hitler, in which the alleged crimes took place, is home to just 2400 people. The local mayor claimed there were no rumours circulating about the house. Some people said Wagner seemed like a nice old gent. Others, however, have told the Austrian media that the outwardly-idyllic number 12 had been nicknamed “The Witches House” and that Wagner was known for his dirty jokes and sexual obsessions.

There was little contact, however, with the outside world. Priest Severin Lakomy only realised the Wagner daughters were still living at home when he saw them at their mother’s funeral.

Wagner came out to play the Austrian form of curling, but that was about the extent of his social activity. Some report that the neighbours thought that the family remained aloof out of shame about the daughters’ disabilities.

Questions are also being asked about why the authorities took so long to act. The first hint of trouble came in May when a nurse paying a routine visit found Gottfried on the floor in a state of undress, having been left there by his daughters. He was taken to hospital where he stayed until his arrest on Thursday, while his daughters remained in the house.

There was enough concern at this point to bar Gottfried from returning, although he was unable to move. “We only learned later that the accident took place after a sexual assault,” said police commander Martin Pumberger.

In June, one of the daughters told a health visitor from the Red Cross that Gottfried ended up on the floor having been knocked down by Christine, the older of the two daughters, when he attempted to rape her. Only then did the law get involved, Braunau police chief Georg Wojak said, defending his force against accusations of complacency.

He added: “The authorities can’t respond until there are allegations of abuse. Would we want to live in some kind of police state?”

The Wagner daughters are now in residential care and being offered psychiatric treatment.

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