German cult leader in Chile gets 20-year sentence

Santiago, Chile - Paul Schaefer, the German leader of a former religious cult in Chile, was sentenced on Wednesday to 20 years in prison for sexual abuse of 25 children, local media reported.

Schaefer, 84, fled Chile in 1997 when authorities began investigating sex abuse accusations against him. He lived in hiding in Argentina until last year when he was discovered and sent to Chile to face trial.

He had been convicted of the sex crimes in absentia, but was retried after he was brought back to Chile.

Judge Hernan Gonzalez also ordered Schaefer to pay $1.4 million in reparations to his victims, media reported. Contacted by telephone, officials at the court in Parral, 210 miles (340 km) south of Santiago, declined to confirm the sentence.

Schaefer formed a religious farming commune in central-southern Chile in the early 1960s with a group of immigrants who followed him from Germany.

The group sealed itself off from the world for decades, living without televisions and telephones and practicing a severe, apocalyptic faith in which Schaefer was seen as a god on Earth.

Former cult members and prosecutors said Schaefer abused children -- including Chileans whose families were drawn to the cult's free clinic and school -- for years.

They said Schaefer forced children to live separately from their parents, strictly divided the sexes and prohibited contact with the outside world, while he fostered close ties with former dictator Augusto Pinochet, who used the group's farm as a detention and torture centre for political prisoners.

The cult -- originally called Colonia Dignidad and later renamed Villa Baviera -- only last year began to establish regular contact with the outside world.

In April, former members of the cult issued a public apology and asked for forgiveness for 40 years of sex and human rights abuses in their community, saying they were brainwashed by Schaefer.

Schaefer still faces human rights abuse charges related to aiding the Pinochet military regime.