Kids 'Sitting Ducks' for Pedophile Teachers

Amid the bars and nightclubs of Bangkok's Khao San Road, the city's main backpacker hangout, fliers advertise English-language teaching jobs available to virtually anyone capable of reading the posters.

Teaching English has been a mainstay of countless Westerners looking to live in Asia, or simply looking for enough cash to keep traveling. In a region hungry to learn the international language of commerce and diplomacy, established schools and fly-by-night "language centers" employ transient tourists, recent college graduates and sometimes, inadvertently, sexual predators looking for young victims.

Canadian Christopher Paul Neil, 32, is the most recent alleged pedophile accused of exploiting the region's demand for English teachers and lax hiring practices in an effort to rape children.

Though technology once kept the face and identity of Neil hidden behind a computer generated swirl, Interpol and Thai police now believe he is hiding amid Bangkok's winding streets.

Since discovering pictures online three years ago of a man seen raping 12 boys, some as young as 6, in Vietnam and Cambodia, German police have worked to identify the suspect whose face had been digitally obscured. Neil, who is believed to have taught at a Thai school from 2003-2004, was caught on camera at the Bangkok Airport entering Thailand last week from Seoul, South Korea. A student at a Korean school in the southern city of Gwangju identified Neil has having taught there for three months.

"It is really a matter of access to children. How do foreigners access children in this region?" asked Rosalind Prober, president of the Canadian children's advocacy group Beyond Borders, by phone from Bangkok.

"There are many ways, depending on the skills you have. While some men pay for sex, teaching offers the perfect venue for access to others. ... These men are highly manipulative and experienced. … Schoolchildren are simply sitting ducks. There are lots of cultural mores about welcoming foreigners and many cultural taboos about complaining about teachers."

In January, British national Sean McMahon, 45, who was teaching English in Bangkok was repatriated to Great Britain on charges that he had raped an 8-year-old girl there.

A month later, Australian Peter William Smith, 48, who taught at a school in Jakarta, Indonesia, was sentenced to 10 years and fined $10,000 by an Indonesian court for engaging in sex with more than 50 boys.

Probably the most publicized arrest of a teacher accused of preying on children came in August 2006, when American John Mark Karr, who confessed to -- and was later exonerated for -- the 1996 murder of Jon Bennet Ramsey was picked up in Thailand. Karr's case spotlighted the ease with which sexual predators could find work in the region's schools.

Karr lost his California teaching license in 2001 for possessing child pornography but had nevertheless taught at three Thai elementary schools.

"Most schools are going to say that they have a screening process. What that means is they looked at a resume, or did an interview. Maybe they saw a diploma from a hopefully real university," American Craig Harrington, who taught in Thai schools for three years wrote in an e-mail from Bangkok.

"It's so very rare for them to do a screening, as we would in the U.S. You must understand, there is a huge demand for teachers here, and many schools just need to fill holes. And even if the schools, both private and governmental, did sufficient screenings, the ever-present language centers, where students go for extracurricular, usually weekend programs, will literally take anyone that has a degree, experience or not. … Facts are never verified, work histories aren't even looked at. If these freaks want to get to kids, they can do it quite easily. It's so easy to get a job on the first interview, and start the next day. How could they screen them?"

More established schools are increasingly relying on reputable Western agencies to vet employees.

"The vast majority of English teachers are not pedophiles," said Dexter Lewis of Search Associates, a company that places qualified teachers overseas.

"We don't work with language schools. We've had too many dicey experiences," he said.

Teachers seem to be the newest subset of Western men who travel to Asia to have sex with children, part of an even larger group of men traveling to the region to engage in sex with adult prostitutes.

In a 2004 report, Beyond Borders printed excerpts from e-mails exchanged among pedophile teachers that were intercepted by the Cambodian police.

"I am having a wonderful time with them sexually," one teacher writes. "Last night four boys spent the night and I like all four of them. … I pay $1 if they give me a massage and $2 if they give me anything extra."

While adult prostitution is a reality in Asia, a region where, according Prober, most local men have visited a brothel, regional governments have grown increasingly worried about child-sex predators.

The Thai government estimates a minimum of 3 million people visit Thailand as sex tourists every year

"Countries that need tourist dollars regularly turn a blind eye to adult prostitution," Prober said. "The Thai people have an economy that relies on tourism, and the fact that some tourists engage in sex with prostitutes has become normalized."

However, Prober said, the governments of Thailand and its neighbors have become increasingly committed to battling child prostitution, trafficking and exploitation of children.

"The Thai police should be commended for how quickly they have acted to find [Neil]. It shows how committed they now are to these issues," she said.