KATHMANDU — For more than a quarter century, the world has known Peter John Dalglish as a noted humanitarian aid worker helping children in poor and war-torn countries, including Nepal.
Next week, Dalglish is set to sit trial on pedophile charges — he is accused of molesting two boys, aged 12 and 14. Officials involved in the case say they have irrefutable evidence that the Canadian national used his influential position to lure poor children, promising them a better education, foreign travel, and job opportunities while sexually abusing them.
Dalglish has denied all allegations. His lawyer, Rahul Chapagain, insisted his client was innocent and suggested the police were trying to frame and defame him.
"Children have been an integral part of his life. He has devoted his work on humanitarian works, working for street, vulnerable, and underprivileged children around the world, including Nepal," he said.
The case has sent shockwaves across Nepal and further afield, raising questions of how large international NGOs monitor staff, while exposing the difficulty of regulating a vast NGO sector in an impoverished country still struggling to emerge from years of unrest.
With some 44,000 registered charities and NGOs and an even larger number of unregistered organizations, the Nepali government has found it all but impossible to monitor its aid sector, say local experts. While Dalglish is the most high-profile humanitarian to go on trial to date, his case follows a string of foreign volunteers arrested and convicted on pedophile charges after using their ties with small organizations to exploit vulnerable children.
Dalglish, who founded Street Kids International, has held key positions in United Nations agencies — including as an adviser to the U.N.’s child labor program in Nepal. He was arrested on the morning of April 7, at his residence in Kavrepalanchok district.
The Central Investigation Bureau, a special intelligence and investigation unit of the Nepali police, made the arrest after a tipoff by local child rights NGOs, according to the police. Two children aged 12 and 14 were also removed from Dalglish’s room by the police.
According to Chapagain, Dalglish rarely stayed in the house, and denied that any children had been rescued from the premise. He said one of the boys was the son of a caretaker, and lived with his father in staff quarters, and the other was his visiting cousin. On the day he was arrested, said Chapagain, Dalglish had recently returned from a trek and was about to fly out of the country.
Pushkar Karki, deputy inspector general and director of CIB, said police had been monitoring Dalglish for months however.
“We were closely following him prior to his arrest, and when visited Nepal three months before the arrest, we were monitoring his activities,” said Karki.
Dalglish worked with the International Labour Organization in Nepal as child protection adviser from 2002-2006 and founded Street Kids International in the late 1980s. The organization works with street children and children in war-torn countries, including Nepal.
According to police statements, the CIB investigation suggests there may have been other victims and that Dalglish used his considerable connections to groom boys — identifying those from poor, dysfunctional, and needy families. A 25-year-old man has also come forward and lodged a statement with the police saying he was abused starting from age 11, though charges have not yet been laid in that case. CIB has also sent notice through Interpol to all of the countries where Dalglish worked.
“The evidence suggests he gained the trust of the children and their respective parents, and eventually involved himself in sexual assaults of the boys,” Karki said.
One of the boys who was taken from Dalglish’s house told police that he was asked to bathe and sleep naked with Dalglish and was sexually assaulted over a period of seven years. During that time, Dalglish also provided him educational support and took him abroad, according to the police report.
“These boys had no idea about what Dalglish was doing with them. They said they felt uncomfortable but never thought it was something wrong. He was their savior,” said an investigation officer involved in preparing charge sheet against Dalglish, speaking on the condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the press.
Police are seeking the maximum punishment of 15 years, as well as compensation for the victims.
Dalglish is just the latest in a string of foreign nationals charged with pedophilia crimes in recent years in Nepal. In January, police arrested German national Hans Jurgen Gustav Dahm — the head of a small charitable children’s center — on pedophile charges. Over the past 20 months, CIB has arrested six foreigners on pedophile-related charges, four of whom were involved with local charities. Two have been convicted and sentenced to nine years, while the rest remain on trial.
One of the poorest and least developed countries in Asia, Nepal has struggled to overcome years of conflict and natural disasters. Foreign aid dollars have seen a ballooning of charities, orphanages, community groups, and more — but the ease with which such organizations can operate has also allowed for unchecked exploitation.
In general, there is a perception among Nepali society that all white foreigners are supportive and keen to help, especially the children, say local aid workers. “Such a mindset facilitates pedophiles’ easy access to vulnerable children,” said Pinky Singh Rana, a board member of Saathi, an NGO working closely on child abuse and pedophile cases in Nepal.
“We are a tourism-friendly country and there is an understanding among the people, particularly in ... rural Nepal, that everything a foreigner does is right. We never question his/her motives or activities.”— Tarak Dhital, head of Nepal’s Central Child Welfare Board
Detecting such cases is highly challenging and requires trained police personnel, as well as support from the families and communities. But Nepal does not have a separate unit to investigate child sexual abuse cases, and awareness and understanding among officials remains limited.
Tarak Dhital, who heads the Central Child Welfare Board of the government of Nepal, said poverty, a weak code of conduct for foreign-run organizations, foreign volunteers, and visitors, particularly those working with children, and a lack of effective immigration tracking and monitoring have created the perfect storm.
“Foreigners get an easy access, starting from the immigration to the society and family. There is implicit trust and white savior approach from the local community,” said Dhital. “We are a tourism-friendly country and there is an understanding among the people, particularly in the rural Nepal, that everything a foreigner does is right. We never question his/her motives or activities.”
The problem is compounded by officials who struggle to gather proper evidence or bring cases to trial, he said. “There is a provision of legal action against the child sexual abuser but the process on how to carry out investigation against pedophiles is still unclear.”
“The government mechanism to deal with child-related sexual abuse needs to be strong. Unfortunately, we lack both trained human resources and financial resources to work on monitoring, tracking, creating awareness, and making a favorable environment for young victims to come forward and report the abuse,” he said.
The ease with which anyone can work or volunteer for children’s organizations has allowed for cases similar to Dalglish’s to occur, said Hari Tiwari, an information officer at the Social Welfare Council, the government’s NGO monitoring body, admitting that limited resources have made monitoring difficult. Some 44,000 NGOs have been registered with Nepal’s the council, and possibly as many as 100,000 exist overall. During the registration and renewal process, SWC collects details of the programs being run and the hires made, but although they have a mandate to coordinate, monitor, and evaluate, the resources simply aren’t there.
“We are aware of the situation where some organizations have foreigners visiting them as volunteers or staff without informing us. So far, our work has been focused on overseeing whether the registered organizations is working to achieve its objectives as mentioned in the project proposal and also monitor its activities to some extent,” he said.
Sulakshana Rana, a child protection advocate who has worked with a number of children rights groups and has helped the government with past pedophile investigations, is urging the government to expand its monitoring and tighten its border controls.
“If we can develop a system where the officers at immigration, the first port of entry to police and government authorities have access to the information about the suspected and convicted pedophiles, it will be very helpful,” she said.
One of the most notorious cases Rana worked on was the 2014 arrest of 71-year-old Canadian Ernest Fenwick MacIntosh, for molesting a 15-year-old boy from a center for the disabled in Kathmandu. A notorious pedophile with multiple charges against him in his own country, MacIntosh was nevertheless easily able to enter Nepal and travel around. He was convicted and sentenced to 7 years in prison.
She pointed to Sri Lanka, which has begun working on technology that provides immigration authorities with immediate access to profiles of convicted pedophiles and those with outstanding charges.
Most of all, said Rana, awareness and education is a crucial element.
“We need to start talking about pedophilia and make people aware that it is happening in Nepal. The more we start talking about it, the more we will be noticing suspicious things with foreigners’ involvement with children,” Rana said.