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The German Experiment That Placed Foster Children with Pedophiles

With the approval of the government, a renowned sexologist ran a dangerous program. How could this happen?

By Rachel Aviv | 19 July 2021

THE NEW YORKER — In 2017, a German man who goes by the name Marco came across an article in a Berlin newspaper with a photograph of a professor he recognized from childhood. The first thing he noticed was the man’s lips. They were thin, almost nonexistent, a trait that Marco had always found repellent. He was surprised to read that the professor, Helmut Kentler, had been one of the most influential sexologists in Germany. The article described a new research report that had investigated what was called the “Kentler experiment.” Beginning in the late sixties, Kentler had placed neglected children in foster homes run by pedophiles. The experiment was authorized and financially supported by the Berlin Senate. In a report submitted to the Senate, in 1988, Kentler had described it as a “complete success.”

Marco had grown up in foster care, and his foster father had frequently taken him to Kentler’s home. Now he was thirty-four, with a one-year-old daughter, and her meals and naps structured his days. After he read the article, he said, “I just pushed it aside. I didn’t react emotionally. I did what I do every day: nothing, really. I sat around in front of the computer.”

Several months after reading the article, Marco looked up the number for Teresa Nentwig, a young political scientist at the University of Göttingen Institute for Democracy Research, who had written the report on Kentler. He felt both curious and ashamed. When she answered the phone, he identified himself as “an affected person.” He told her that his foster father had spoken with Kentler on the phone every week. In ways that Marco had never understood, Kentler, a psychologist and a professor of social education at the University of Hannover, had seemed deeply invested in his upbringing.

Nentwig had assumed that Kentler’s experiment ended in the nineteen-seventies. But Marco told her he had lived in his foster home until 2003, when he was twenty-one. “I was totally shocked,” she said. She remembers Marco saying several times, “You are the first person I’ve told—this is the first time I’ve told my story.” As a child, he’d taken it for granted that the way he was treated was normal. “Such things happen,” he told himself. “The world is like this: it’s eat and be eaten.” But now, he said, “I realized the state has been watching.” […]

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