A man whose young daughter was sexually abused by a neighbour is pushing the European Union to change its child abuse laws, having already done so almost single-handedly in the Netherlands and Germany over a decade of campaigning.
In the summer of 2009, Marcel Jeninga, then a manager at a grocery store, and his wife discovered their 3-year-old daughter had been abused after finding physical signs of the abuse on her body.
“Who did this to you?” his wife asked.
“Geert,” their daughter replied – the man living next door.
Two days later, Geert, who we are only identifying by his first name due to Dutch law, was arrested. Police found that his DNA matched with that discovered on the pyjamas of 8-year-old Semiha Metin, who in 1991 was raped and strangled to death by an assailant who remained unknown until Geert’s DNA solved the cold case.
The revelation haunts Jeninga. “This could have been my daughter,” he told VICE World News. Especially as he believes police complacency partly led to his daughter’s abuse. In 2006, the year she was born, authorities confiscated Geert’s computer after suspecting him of viewing child sexual abuse material, which they found on the computer. Despite the discovery, Geert went uncharged, wasn’t added to the sex offender’s register, and even had the computer returned to him, according to Jeninga and his lawyer.
When approached for comment, Dutch police told VICE World News that the case was now closed so they could not discuss it in any detail.
Geert began sexually abusing Jeninga’s daughter soon after she was born, Jeninga says. He recalls a moment six months before their discovery when their neighbour came over for coffee. His daughter put her hand in his pocket without asking and pulled out sweets. Jeninga and his wife looked at each other. Geert laughed, finished his coffee and left. They never spoke again.
When the computer was again seized after Jeninga reported the abuse of his daughter, police found thousands of images of the 3-year-old – many posted on the internet. “They’re probably still online somewhere,” Jeninga told VICE World News, “there’s no way to get them back.”
In 2010, Geert was found to have sexually abused five girls including the Jeningas’ daughter, and was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison. He has since been in preventative custody and a closed psychiatric facility, and may never be released. Geert’s lawyer didn’t reply to a request for comment.
This was not the only horrifying aspect of the case for Jeninga or his wife. His own mother was also arrested, too, accused of being an accomplice in the sexual assault of her own granddaughter, which she denied. Jeninga’s mother had babysat when he and his wife worked.
She was acquitted in 2009 because of a lack of evidence. Jeninga and his mother have not spoken since.
“Even if you want to believe your own mother,” Jeninga told VICE World News, “you can't believe that she didn’t notice or suspect anything.” Jeninga’s mother could not be reached for comment. Her former lawyer is no longer in touch with her.
For Jeninga and his wife, that day in June 2009, when they discovered their daughter had been abused, was the start of an ongoing campaign against child sexual abuse. They have so far forced a ban on a pro-paedophilia association in the Netherlands and the criminalisation of instruction manuals for abusers in the Netherlands, Germany, and soon – Jeninga hopes – across the whole of the European Union.
But it's an uphill battle – and COVID has only made things worse. Inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic have left children more vulnerable to exploitation, says the UN, with perpetrators more likely to produce, share or seek out child sexual abuse material online. In the UK, perpetrators appear to be getting younger. And according to the Internet Watch Foundation, Europe now hosts more child abuse sites than anywhere else – three-quarters of which are hosted on Dutch servers.
“It can’t be denied, most child abuse content is hosted in our country,” Dutch Security and Justice Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus said in September 2020, announcing new measures to punish site hosts.
“We cannot allow the internet to be used as a filthy garbage dump.”
During Geert’s trial, Jeninga and his wife learnt to their horror that a Dutch group had been advising Geert on how to secretly abuse their daughter, according to Jeninga and his lawyer. Founded in 1982, Vereniging Martijn, or just Martijn, fought to legalise sex between adults and children. It also gave members “advice, aid and information”.
In February 2010, the Jeningas took the group to court. “Geert got tips from Martijn on how to abuse my child,” said Jeninga. “I wanted to prevent other children from being subjected to the same thing.”
The group's former chairman, Marthijn Uittenbogaard, told VICE World News he never had any contact with Geert. "The Martijn association never gave tips to break the law."
After a years-long legal battle, during which Martijn faced several scandals, the Dutch Supreme Court finally banned Martijn in 2014.
“That day felt like a victory,” Jeninga told Dutch news site AD in 2019. “From the first day we discovered the abuse, I was put into fight mode.”
Martijn wasn’t the only group pushing for the acceptance of paedophilia in the Netherlands; in 2013 a website began publishing pro-paedophilia texts. The site was named after Edward Brongersma, a lawyer and politician who was a key figure in the Dutch movement. Brongersma, who was arrested in 1950 for having sex with a 17-year-old boy, later helped lower the Dutch age of consent to 16, and pushed for it to be younger.
Its founder, Joop Wilhelmus, spent two years in prison in the early 90s for having sex with his own daughter. More recently, several members of Martijn were involved in the PNVD party, which campaigned to legalise paedophilia but never won a seat in parliament. After dissolving in 2010, it relaunched last August.
Public pro-paedophilia advocacy is not a uniquely Dutch phenomenon, either.
After the May 1968 countercultural revolution, groups across Western Europe used the language of sexual liberation to argue paedophilia was mere taboo, falsely portraying it as an expression of children’s repressed desires. Child “pornography” was legal for a decade in Denmark starting in 1969. In Germany, where treatment – including chemical castration – is now offered to paedophiles, the movement gained headway, especially on the left.
In Germany, the Greens and liberal FDP passed pro-pedophilia resolutions in the 1980s, while in communes and "anti-authoritarian kindergardens," many children were sexually abused. There was a “widely-held belief in West Germany that sexual freedom was a way to prevent authoritarianism”, Stephan Klechna, a researcher, told the New Republic in 2014. Across the Rhine, French writers and associations were also pushing for the “removal of all sexual taboos”.
In 1977, intellectuals including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Roland Barthes signed petitions defending men accused of having sex with minors and calling for the decriminalisation of paedophilia. In Britain, the Paedophile Information Exchange publicy advocated for normalising adult-child sex – via abolition or lowering of the age of consent – from 1974-84. In an astonishing 1983 BBC interview, chair Steven Adrian falsely claimed to the exasperated presenter that such “relationships” were “entirely reciprocal”.
The group was disbanded after a series of scandals involving members, including a KGB spy in British intelligence.
Many European countries have begun reckoning with the past. In 2013, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a former protagonist of May ‘68 and Franco-German politician representing both countries' Green parties in Europe, came under fire for a book published in 1975. “When a little five-year-old girl starts undressing, it's great," he wrote, "it’s an incredibly erotic game." That year, Germany's Green party ordered an investigation into its conduct in the 1980s, when “it practically served as the parliamentary arm of the paedophile movement,” according to Der Spiegel.
In the UK, police launched an investigation into historical accusations of paedophilia in 2012. Soon after, the police watchdog began investigating allegations that police covered up sex offences by officers and MPs between the 1970s and 2000s.
In France, the #balancetonporc and #MeTooInceste movements have helped puncture the sacred status of cultural elites. France belatedly introduced its first age of consent bill last April, setting it at 15. In 2017, a court had ruled that a 28-year-old man who had sex with an 11-year-old girl was not guilty of rape.
It isn’t the only European country whose laws governing child abuse have proven inadequate. The European Commission took legal action against 23 member states in 2019 for not properly implementing its directive on fighting child sexual abuse.
Having successfully pushed for the Martijn ban, in 2018 Jeninga heard about the so-called “paedophile’s handbook”, a 1,000-page online document on how to abuse children and get away with it. Its authors are unknown, but Jeninga felt much of the content echoed the advice he says Martijn gave Geert.
Uittenbogaard of Martijn told VICE he has never seen the handbook.
One section listed how likely children of certain ages are to reveal they have been abused. Another gave practical advice on how to deflate different bicycle tyres if a child tries to ride away. Elsewhere, a chapter called “Hunting Season” included far more sexually explicit advice.
Such manuals were only illegal in the UK, so Jeninga began campaigns to ban them in both the Netherlands and Germany.
In May 2019, however, Dutch Justice Minister Grapperhaus said the handbook contained no criminal material.
“I was not going to accept that answer,” says Jeninga.
In January 2020, he drove to The Hague and presented the handbook to the Dutch House of Representatives. Jeroen van Wijngaarden, an MP from the ruling VVD party, proposed a motion to ban it. And in July 2020, the House voted that distribution, acquisition and possession of the manual warranted four years' prison.
“The tears welled up in my eyes,” Jeninga told the Dutch newspaper De Stentor about the moment he heard the news. “Man, it’s giving me goosebumps on my arms.”
The bill will likely be ratified when a new cabinet is formed.
In 2019, with the campaign underway in the Netherlands, Jeninga met with German MPs Maik Beermann and Silke Launert to discuss banning the handbook.
The following year, he filed a complaint with the Frankfurt Public Prosecutor's Office and gave interviews to build pressure, appearing with German actor Carsten Stahl, a martial artist and anti-bullying campaigner. Germany approved the ban in late June 2021, making possession or dissemination of any material with instructions on child sexual abuse punishable by up to three years’ prison.
Both Beermann and Wijngaarden told VICE World News they doubt the respective bans would have happened without Jeninga’s work.
Jeninga now wants a Europe-wide ban. He has spoken with Belgian MEP Jeroen Lenaers, who told VICE World News there is a “very broad political majority on the need to tackle child abuse”, though views on how to do so vary, especially on privacy issues.
The EU’s recent directive on combatting child abuse has “seriously underperformed”, he said, but added that legislation is expected imminently and the creation of a new pan-European centre to coordinate efforts is “promising”.
Jeninga plans to present the handbook to the European parliament like he did to Dutch lawmakers, but Lenaers says a Europe-wide ban still has “a long way to go”.
Meanwhile, Jeninga continues his campaigning. He runs a group for parents whose children have been abused.
In 2019, he and his wife filed a report to police alleging former Martijn members were still active online. Several were part of a private mailing list sharing tips on abusing children.
“Why do I, as a father, have to keep waking up the Dutch police?” asks Jeninga. “Seeing how slowly politicians and authorities reacted…my trust in people and relationships has been totally shattered.”
Jeninga struggles to hold down jobs because “the past always comes up”. It’s not only the abuse that haunts him, but the thought of Geert in his house, and the alleged role of his mother.
“It eats at me,” Jeninga says.
But the campaigning helps, he adds, “to have some kind of purpose from all these horrible events.”