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Case Study

The Basketball Sect

The biggest child sexual abuse case in Greece, involving dozens of children abused by their coach over a period of years, highlights the deficiencies of individual authorities, as well as the Greek state’s failure to organise an effective response, even when expert knowledge and funding are available.

Rethymno
Basketball court in a Rethymno school.

Basketball court in a Rethymno school.

© The Manifold

In the spring of 2011, the Department of Mental Health and Social Welfare of the Institute of Child Health, a research and clinical intervention centre overseen by the Ministry of Health, was running the Balkan Epidemiological Study on Child Abuse and Neglect. As they were processing their results, during the summer, they noticed what seemed like an anomaly. In the results from the Region of Rethymno, in Crete, there appeared an extremely high rate of self-reported sexual victimisation of boys and almost a complete reversal of the boy to girl ratio.

“We could not explain it,” George Nikolaidis, Director of the Department, told us. “We speculated it must be due to a technical error.”

It was not an error. On December 1st, 2011, the police arrested a school basketball coach, Nikos Seiragakis, who also coached the local youth basketball team, AGOR. He was charged with molesting dozens of children.

It was this man’s activity that produced the “anomaly” in the BECAN results.

A methodical police operation

A few days after the coach was arrested, the Rethymno police chief, Manolis Paradoulakis, told the press that this was “a systematic and methodical police operation,” which “happened in the shortest time possible”.1  

The chief’s emphasis on the “shortest time” seemed to anticipate the question that soon emerged, why there had been a thirteen-month interval between the time when two families went to the police with allegations that the coach was abusing their children, and the time of the arrest. 

The chief maintained that there had been “rumors” rather than allegations, despite the fact that the two families of immigrant workers had eponymously denounced the coach to the police. He then explained that the police investigated the “rumors” and “discreetly” gathered evidence, in order to determine whether there was any merit to the case. When they found that there was, they proceeded to build the case in collaboration with the Rethymno prosecutor at the time, Maria Dimitriadou, a process which took more than a year, because they wanted to make sure the evidence was solid. “The arrest,” the chief said, “was made in the shortest possible time, as soon as there was complete corroboration of the case with incontrovertible evidence.”

When, during our visit to the Department for the Protection of Minors in the General Police Directorate of Attica, we discussed police handling of child abuse cases, we were told that from an operational point of view, a coach is one of the “easiest” types of perpetrator to catch. “If he is a coach,” the officers told us, “there are more victims”. When, however, we specifically referred to the Rethymno case, the officers said that they had not personally conducted the operation, so they could not comment in detail. 

The possibility that the authorities attempted to preempt any discussion on the police’s choice of timing is strengthened by the fact that Manolis Othonas, Deputy Minister for Citizen protection and Member of Parliament for Rethymno at the time, was already reassuring reporters that there had been no delays, two days before the police chief officially briefed the press on the operation. He commended the police on turning “whispers” into “a case”, and dismissed allegations that the coach had enjoyed some sort of “protection” due to his supposed standing in Rethymno society.

This was contradicted by the Manager of AGOR at the time, Vassilis Theodoroulakis, who stated in an interview that he had been unofficially informed by a police officer about the allegations against the coach, about three months after they happened. He then informed the team’s Board of Directors, who he says did nothing, in order not to damage the team’s reputation. The Board has denied the accusation.  

What is undisputed, however, is that during the time that elapsed between the allegations of the two migrant families against the coach and his arrest, no child protection official or professional was alerted to protect the interests of the children. The decision to prolong the children’s plight for over a year was made without the intervention of any part of the child protection system.

An esteemed member of local society

When we visited Rethymno, in autumn 2018, the weather was rainy. The wet buildings in the old town, dating from Rethymno’s Venetian period, the castle, the lighthouse hidden in the fog, all painted a highly unusual picture for non-locals who stereotypically associate Crete only with summer tourism. We kept wondering how in this town of 40.000 people, which looked even smaller without the summer crowds, it was possible for someone to systematically abuse dozens of children for years, without anybody ever noticing a thing? 

In the old town, opposite the renowned Rimondi fountain, we met with Chara Vilara, an experienced local journalist, who had followed the case closely.

“It was a chronic situation,” she told us. “Obviously, it wasn’t going on for just one or two years, it went back quite a lot. Some of the children had grown up when it became public. There were many children who knew, who weren’t a part of it, but knew and didn’t speak. It touched many families, both directly and indirectly.”

Everyone we spoke with agreed that coach Nikos Seiragakis was an important member of Rethymno society. He had been one of the organisers of the “Treasure Hunt”, a popular yearly event. He was esteemed in the “old town”, meaning the circles of Rethymno’s aristocratic families, and he was well connected in local politics. His contacts reached into the Greek national basketball team, and even the American NBA. Those who know say that children thought of him as a mentor. He was a good speaker, and when he coached, nobody made a sound.

Under strict discipline, the coach had created a kind of “sect”. He approached his students with the promise of admittance to an inner circle, to which only a select few could belong. He used pseudo-historical references to military training in ancient Greece, in order to convince them that in this way they would form a tighter bond with their teammates and become better athletes. Through a series of “trials”, aimed at wresting a kind of “consent” from the children, a process known as “grooming”, the coach initially encouraged them to sexually engage with each other, and subsequently molested them himself. His influence on them was so strong that some students actually defended his actions.

“The big question,” Olga Themeli, an associate professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Crete, told us, “is how the perpetrator selects the children, how the grooming actually happens. Which children does he choose? Well, he chooses vulnerable children, ones without strong family bonds. Children with certain disadvantages, foreigners, the disabled, or children who are emotionally neglected. He finds cracks. He comes as a mentor. As a protector. Then comes the second step: trust. Privileges. And then comes submission. This can take a long time. At that point, children gradually realise what is going on. So, there is a stage of transferring responsibility: whoever doesn’t want this, can get up and leave now. That’s the transfer: it is you who wants this. And when there is a collective situation, a sharing within a group, it is even more difficult to break this chain. Children understand they are trapped. They stay at this stage of entrapment for many years. This can happen in any abusive relationship. We call it ‘learned helplessness’. Most children will never tell. Some will tell when they cannot bear it any longer. Or because they may see their younger siblings or other loved ones victimised. Or a random event may trigger it off. And then, after a long time, they will tell. Some will have already become adults.”

Coach Nikos Seiragakis was initially charged with 53 counts of child molestation, and convicted on 36 counts. His sentence of 400 years imprisonment was upheld by the Appeals Court, which heard his appeal in 2016. 

During our visit to Rethymno, we were told by people, who spoke to us on the condition of preserving their anonymity, that the number of victims not included in the charges probably raised the total to over one hundred children. 

Seiragakis was conditionally released, according to the provisions of Greek law, at the end of April 2020, after serving eight years and five months. The conditions of his release stipulate that he cannot live in, or visit Rethymno. A few days later, he was arrested again for breaching the conditions of his release. The decision on whether he will remain free or return to prison is pending.

Inherent resistance

In mid December 2011, a conference on child protection took place in Heraklion, the capital of Crete, as part of the Council of Europe’s “One in Five” campaign. 2 The conference had been planned before the Rethymno child abuse case was made public, but, as George Nikolaidis remembers, when he arrived in Crete, everyone was understandably talking about little else.  

“I went to Rethymno the following day,” Nikolaidis told us, “and because of my occupation, I attended a meeting with the municipality, the region and the local authorities. I was then asked to make a proposal, which I submitted both to the local authorities and the relevant ministries at the end of December 2011. It was a proposal on the actions that needed to be taken, given the scope of the case, whose extent we did not know, but it appeared to be a mass case.”

Rethymno Municipal Gym, home of AGOR.

Rethymno Municipal Gym, home of AGOR.

© The Manifold

After a meeting of relevant ministries and authorities, it was decided that the proposal by the Institute of Child Health should be implemented. The lack of resources, exacerbated by the financial crisis, was addressed by allocating European Union NSFR funds to the programme. Still, it took about a year for the intervention to begin.

“This is indicative of how unwieldy the Greek public sector can be, even when it comes to projects it funds and the political will is present,” Nikolaidis said.

In the event, the unit for Comprehensive Psychosocial Intervention in Rethymno received approximately 450 children, according to Nikolaidis, “not all victims necessarily, we also covered pre-existing mental health needs”. 3

“At the same time,” he told us, “we ran a widely accessible health promotion campaign on the subject of child abuse, children’s sexuality, the children’s right to their body, and so on, at all levels of education in the whole of the Region of Rethymno, that is to say, primary and secondary schools, students, parents and teachers. We also trained personnel at various services, we held educational actions for coaches and sportspeople. Because we were immediately visited by the coaches’ association and told, “We don’t dare touch the children, you can’t coach children and be afraid to touch them at the same time.” Therefore, we had to impart all the international know-how about how it is possible to have both child protection processes in place and still function as a sports space.” 

Despite the obvious need for intervention in the consequences of a case that had affected dozens of families, Nikolaidis told us that the programme faced what he terms “inherent resistance”. “I believe,” he said, “that at least some of the local actors preferred to forget this incident had ever happened rather than work to enable the local community to get over it. There was a fairly strong tendency to sweep everything under the rug.”

Chara Vilara shared with us a similar perspective. “After the events came to light,” she said, “many parents punished their children, they beat them up, because they believed it had been the children’s fault. And other families never dealt with it at all. Like it never happened. Some, of course, did try to help their children, but what really made an impression on me was that when the police brought the coach to court, there was no one outside. Nobody went to protest, to vent, even. If it had been someone else, there would have been a crowd outside, there would have been shouting, all hell would have broken loose. This is telling, because these children belonged to the local social elite. These people want to cover up what happened.” 

Although Nikolaidis and his team managed to prolong the Rethymno programme for a total of 22 months, by economising on funds that were supposed to last for 12, in the autumn of 2014 resources were exhausted. 

“We were informed by the political leadership,” Nikolaidis told us, “that their decision was to shut down the unit permanently, which was one of the most traumatic experiences I have had in this field. There were many children and families already in systematic therapy and who essentially had no other options, nowhere else to go. We were obliged to inform people that we would be closing, and they were literally crying.”

Nevertheless, the Ministry of Health’s Action Plan on Children’s rights, which was published online for public debate during the pre-election period, in November 2014, included an extension of the Rethymno programme, funded through the NSFR 2014-2020. But the January 2015 elections brought a change of government, and any plans to extend the programme were quietly dropped.

Out of the sky

On the hill that overlooks Rethymno harbour stands an austere concrete building, which at the time of our visit temporarily housed the Rethymno Mental Health Centre. We were greeted by its director, psychiatrist, psychodramatist and actor, Antonis Liodakis.

He was of the opinion that the Rethymno programme had been “interjected”, and had “dropped out of the sky”. “In the sense,” he explained, “that these professionals from Athens were coming here to see children, parents, other cases, the whole thing functioned like a medico-paedagogic centre.”

Chara Vilara, on the other hand, points out that the children were under immense pressure, “because other kids knew and made fun of them”. “So, they went to private psychiatrists in Chania and Heraklion, because they were afraid of the stigma.”

George Nikolaidis’s experience seemed to echo Vilara’s observation: “One of the criticisms we received,” he said “was that the personnel employed in our intervention did not come from the local community, did not come from Rethymno. But I believe that was a very intelligent choice if anyone involved in the events back then recalls the mood of the local community at the time.  In every new incident, our personnel, the psychologists, the social workers, the child psychologists who worked with us, were asked by those they saw whether they were from Rethymno. The moment they heard, “No, I’m from elsewhere,” there was a huge wave of relief and then they shared their suffering, which they would probably not have done had the personnel been local. So, let’s just say there was some discontent that we did not support local employment. But we chose to make communication for the beneficiaries easier and more effective.”

Antonis Liodakis, however, pressed his point: “We had already identified the key issues since 2008,” he told us. “We have been asking for the creation of a medico-paedagogic centre with every opportunity.”

Nikolaidis makes no secret of his surprise that the programme was discontinued. “Until the very last minute,” he said “people close to the political leadership of the time, the political actors in Rethymno, were reassuring us that an extension would be granted, as there was evidently no other solution. I cannot know what could have possibly happened overnight to change that decision.” And he added: “All I know is that any efforts made in the immediate aftermath for questions on this matter to be tabled in Parliament by SYRIZA, the main opposition party at the time, ultimately failed. Incidentally, SYRIZA’s health coordinator in opposition was Andreas Xanthos, who subsequently became Minister of Health in the following government, and who is also the local MP for the Region of Rethymno.”

After SYRIZA came to power in January 2015, it took the new government two years to come up with its own “Action Plan” on child protection. The Rethymno programme was not a part of it, and it was never reinstated.

Antonis Liodakis started working in consulting groups in the Ministry of Health and joined Andreas Xanthos in official SYRIZA events on public health. In 2017, Xanthos approved Liodakis’s plans for the medico-pedagogic centre, with himself as director.

This story is being updated with developments on Nikos Seiragakis’s conditional release and subsequent rearrest in April/May 2020.