Thrown to the wolves: China's children at the mercy of foreign predators

Children across China are at the mercy of foreign sexual predators who take advantage of lax background checks and inaction by schools

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 July, 2013, 7:04pm

Middle-school teacher Dave Straub had a shock when he caught a national TV news broadcast during a holiday in the misty Wudang mountains in Hubei province: a former colleague appeared on the screen.

American kindergarten teacher David McMahon had been arrested in Shanghai over allegations of child abuse in six cases, the news anchor said. A second, unnamed, foreign teacher was also mentioned in the report.

Straub, a native of Minnesota who has worked in China since 2001, said he was devastated. "You gotta be kidding me," he said. "Is this really the guy?"

"Usually when you read about child molesters, you say: 'I don't want to hear about this', but when you know a guy, it's: 'Oh my god, I can't believe it'."

But an even greater shock awaited Straub. As he began to research the case of McMahon, with whom he had previously worked in Shanghai, he discovered that child abuse by foreign teachers on the mainland might be a wider problem than he thought. This year alone, at least four foreign teachers have been arrested in connection with sex offences on minors.

Some cases of child abuse by foreign teachers seem to have been swept under the rug, with teachers or tutors only being fired without being reported to the police, leaving them free to move on to another school.

Awaiting a new school year in Hangzhou , where he now works, Straub spent hundreds of hours online trying to piece together the history of the unnamed second teacher. "I just became consumed with him," he said. "My wife is not too thrilled."

By connecting the dots from information provided online, school newsletters, social media profiles and publicly available court documents, Straub identified the second man as 47-year-old Hector Hugo Orjuela Jnr from California, who previously taught English in Shanghai.

Orjuela was extradited to the US in December and is now awaiting trial in Washington on two counts of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places.

In court documents seen by the Post and published online, he admitted "fondling one of the victims … at least five times and attempting to fondle another". Both alleged victims were five-year-old girls he tutored while in Shanghai.

The court documents also show that he admitted searching for and downloading child pornography.

Orjuela was denied bail in February and, if convicted, faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

"What Orjuela did was horrific and his name should get out there," Straub said.

The charges against him raise the spectre of foreign child molesters spending years successfully climbing the ladder at schools in China without getting caught. McMahon also spent years in China before his arrest in Shanghai on June 13. Orjuela and McMahon's cases are not isolated. A convicted US child molester, Wesley Lowe, left China in January because of visa problems, the Nanjing-based Modern Express reported in April.

Wayne Prete, who was a colleague of Lowe's at a Nanjing branch of a private English-language teaching centre in 2009, said he was the first to expose Lowe as a sex offender. "I went to check the [US] federal registry. He was convicted ... in four different states," Prete told the Post, referring to the publicly available US national database of convicted sex offenders.

Prete, now a building contractor in Florida, said the school had refused to fire Lowe after he reported him. "I told the school director, if they didn't get rid of him, I'd stay outside the school and hand [printouts] of the convictions to every single parent who had a child at the school," he said.

"They didn't fire him. They sent him to another school in Nanjing," Prete said.

The school in question did not reply to multiple requests for comment. The school, however, confirmed it had employed Lowe until 2009, when he left for another unspecified school, the Modern Express reported in April.

Prete said he also found three other registered US child molesters teaching in Nanjing, in eastern Jiangsu province. Prete contacted the police and the schools, but his information was ignored.

Prete says he left China for Florida in 2010. Lowe, however, continued to teach in China for three more years.

In May, British citizen Neil Robinson turned himself in to Beijing police after being outed on Reddit as a wanted fugitive in Britain on eight charges of sex offences involving minors.

He had been teaching in Beijing since 2008, Beijing World Youth Academy said. A recruitment company told the Post that his résumé said he had been working in China since 2002.

In a separate case, Australian Hilton Reece Munro was arrested on July 12 on allegations of abusing four boys, aged nine to 14, in Cebu, the Philippines. He had just completed a three-year stint as head of the Zhuhai International School in Guangdong a month earlier.Until the first allegations emerged against him last autumn, Orjuela's career history read like any of the thousands of other foreign teachers in China, who work themselves up from provincial training centres to the prestigious international schools in Beijing and Shanghai.

After graduating with a bachelor of arts degree from the University of California, Irvine, in 1984, he spent years teaching English in Colombia and Guatemala. He moved to Urumqi , capital of the remote Xinjiang autonomous region, in 2002 to teach English, according to a résumé published online and people who knew him.

In 2004, he left Urumqi for Shanghai, where he taught at international schools and gave private classes. In the autumn of last year, he was dismissed from his job at the German School in Shanghai after allegations emerged of improper behaviour with five-year-old twins, who were not pupils at the school.

The school first suspended Orjuela, then fired him after similar allegations were made outside school, said Jochen Klein, a school spokesman.

The school informed the authorities, students and parents, and used the incident to strengthen communication among other international schools in Shanghai to avoid similar incidents, he added.

Orjuela provided the school with a police background check and was, before the incident came to light, well-liked among staff and students, Klein said.

In 2011, there were 26,000 foreign teachers working in Beijing alone, the municipal government said in November, making up 37 per cent of all those legally employed with "foreign expert" status in Beijing.

Unlike the German School and other major international schools, most regular schools, kindergartens and teaching centres offering English-language teaching on the mainland accept Chinese police records or don't require any background checks at all, teachers say.

"There are only 10 schools in Beijing that would do background checks at all," said Jonathan Mellen, a long-time history and geography teacher in Beijing. "I know a lot of Chinese schools, (where) you don't even have to have a degree to teach there.

"A lot of us are outraged," said Mellen, referring to the recent scandals. "People think all international schools are the same. I know some schools have no background checks at all."

Straub, who looked up Orjuela's past, said lax background checks "undermine the credibility of our schools, of our profession and of teachers in China. I would rather see the government institute background checks".

Last week, the State Council surprised immigration lawyers when it excluded a "certificate of no criminal conviction" from the list of documents necessary for obtaining an employment visa in China. Such a police check had been included in a first draft of the regulations released for public comment in May.

In contrast, South Korea requires all foreign teachers to submit criminal background documents from their home countries, prove the authenticity of their degrees and pass a drug test.

Mellen said schools were pushed into hiring without proper checks by demand. "'If you want a police background check for everyone, then that's going to hold up the process' - goes their thinking," he said.

"It's just like it was in Thailand some years ago and we don't want that in China," Mellen said.

Michael Dunne, of the Children and Youth Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, echoed Mellen's thoughts. "It's a significant problem in Southeast Asia, countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand," said the professor, who has researched sexual abuse of children in China. "There are so many reports all over China, but we don't know how widespread that is."

"This is the next pattern we need to be aware of," said Charol Shakeshaft, an expert on child abuse by school staff at Virginia Commonwealth University in the US. "The fixated abuser will continue to abuse. If they have been taken out of the American schools, they are going to some other place.

"One of the problems is that we don't have data. It's not on the radar, but it should be."

A review of 24 studies on child abuse in China published by Dunne and two other scholars in April showed that 15.3 per cent of its people experienced sexual abuse as a child, but there were no specific figures for sexual abuse by foreign teachers. One reason was that schools were "more concerned with protecting their image than protecting the interest of the children", Dunne said.

"The second aspect is denial and ignorance by school administrators that they simply do not believe that it occurs," he said.

Mellen said. "You don't know what's happening in these schools. There could be things … you don't know anything about."

Correction: An earlier version of the article wrongly stated Orjuela's age as 37, it's 47.