BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The former Oxfam official at the heart of a sex abuse scandal said on Thursday he made mistakes when working in Haiti but denied paying for sex with prostitutes or abusing minors.
One of the world’s best-known and biggest disaster relief charities, Oxfam has been under fire since Britain’s The Times newspaper reported on Friday that some Oxfam staff paid for sex with prostitutes in Haiti after the country’s 2010 earthquake.
Oxfam has neither confirmed nor denied that specific account but has said an internal investigation in 2011 confirmed sexual misconduct occurred, and it has apologised.
The scandal has shaken the aid sector, with Britain and the EU reviewing Oxfam’s funding.
South African Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu stepped down on Thursday as an Oxfam ambassador. A statement said he was “deeply disappointed by allegations of immorality and possible criminality involving humanitarian workers linked to the charity”.
In his first response to allegations over his conduct, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, who ran the Oxfam operation in Haiti at the time, said he did not want to cast himself as a victim but feared that Oxfam, other aid workers and those they help would suffer from false accusations.
In a four-page open letter to a broadcaster in his native Belgium, he said an unnamed former employee was the source of reports that first broke in The Times.
“I am not a saint. I am a man of flesh and blood and I have made mistakes (not easy to admit) and I am DEEPLY ASHAMED,” the 68-year-old former soldier wrote in Dutch to broadcaster VTM.
He said he resigned his post running the Oxfam operation after the 2010 Haiti earthquake because he had failed to exercise sufficient control over staff accused of sexual misconduct. But he denied any wrongdoing himself - he never organised “sex parties” or visited brothels in the country.
He acknowledged having had a brief sexual relationship at his Oxfam house with a local woman whom he met as a result of giving her younger sister milk powder and diapers for her child. He denied giving the woman money but said the liaison “fuelled rumours” and had left his leadership and Oxfam “compromised”.
Reuters was not able to verify his account.
The letter also dealt with allegations about his conduct in earlier operations: In Liberia in 2004, he acknowledged, he was fired after attending a party where two prostitutes were present although he said he had only “danced and flirted” with them.
He said rumours of aid staff paying for sex in Chad in 2006 were “complete nonsense”.
Complaining of “slander”, he said he believed the reports were based on allegations by a man he had fired in Liberia for drunkenness and abusing staff. He did not name this person.
“I feel I have done wrong, but not in the way that some media are reporting,” Van Hauwermeiren wrote, adding: “These allegations are destroying me and I no longer dare to appear in public or speak to my family and children.”
Reuters could not reach Van Hauwermeiren for direct comment. A Oxfam spokeswoman declined to comment on his letter.
Oxfam said on Thursday it hired another man to work in Ethiopia a few months after he had been dismissed for misconduct in Haiti. The spokeswoman said the decision was a “serious error and should never have happened.”
Haitian Justice Minister Heidi Fortune told Reuters on Wednesday he had asked Belgium for help in starting legal action against Van Hauwermeiren, without specifying which laws might have been broken.
Belgium’s Justice Ministry said on Thursday it had received no request and federal prosecutors said they were not aware of any investigation into Van Hauwermeiren. Belgium does not extradite its citizens to countries outside the European Union.
Also on Thursday, British International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt and the director of the UK National Crime Agency discussed next steps regarding the Oxfam revelations. The NCA has led past investigations into Britons who were convicted of sex crimes abroad.
“They discussed how DFID and the NCA can work together in implementing laws on sexual exploitation and abuse and agreed to strengthen co-operation on this issue,” a spokeswoman for the Department for International Development said.
Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; Additional reporting by Ed Cropley in Johannesburg, William Schomberg and Alistair Smout in London; Editing by Alastair Macdonald, Andrew Roche and Peter Graff