With the approval of the government, a renowned sexologist ran a dangerous program. How could this happen?
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.”
Marco looks like a movie star—he is tanned, with a firm jaw, thick dark hair, and a long, symmetrical face. As an adult, he has cried only once. “If someone were to die in front of me, I would of course want to help them, but it wouldn’t affect me emotionally,” he told me. “I have a wall, and emotions just hit against it.” He lived with his girlfriend, a hairdresser, but they never discussed his childhood. He was unemployed. Once, he tried to work as a mailman, but after a few days he quit, because whenever a stranger made an expression that reminded him of his foster father, an engineer named Fritz Henkel, he had the sensation that he was not actually alive, that his heart had stopped beating, and that the color had drained from the world. When he tried to speak, it felt as if his voice didn’t belong to him. (…)
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.” (…)
As a young boy, Marco liked to pretend he was one of the Templars, an order of knights that protected pilgrims to the Holy Land. He was a lively child who occasionally wandered around his Berlin neighborhood unsupervised. At five, in 1988, he crossed the street alone and was hit by a car. He was not seriously injured, but the accident attracted the attention of the Schöneberg youth-welfare office, which is run by the Berlin state government. Caseworkers at the office observed that Marco’s mother seemed “unable to give him the necessary emotional attention.” She worked at a sausage stand, and was struggling to manage parenthood on her own. Marco’s father, a Palestinian refugee, had divorced her. She sent Marco and his older brother to day care in dirty clothes, and left them there for eleven hours. Caseworkers recommended that Marco be placed in a foster home with a “family-like atmosphere.” One described him as an attractive boy who was wild but “very easy to influence.”
Marco was assigned to live with Henkel, a forty-seven-year-old single man who supplemented his income as a foster father by repairing jukeboxes and other electronics. Marco was Henkel’s eighth foster son in sixteen years. When Henkel began fostering children, in 1973, a teacher noticed that he was “always looking for contact with boys.” Six years later, a caseworker observed that Henkel appeared to be in a “homosexual relationship” with one of his foster sons. When a public prosecutor launched an investigation, Helmut Kentler, who called himself Henkel’s “permanent adviser,” intervened on Henkel’s behalf—a pattern that repeats throughout more than eight hundred pages of case files about Henkel’s home. Kentler was a well-known scholar, the author of several books on sex education and parenting, and he was often quoted in Germany’s leading newspapers and on its TV programs. The newspaper Die Zeit had described him as the “nation’s chief authority on questions of sexual education.” On university letterhead, Kentler issued what he called an “expert opinion,” explaining that he had come to know Henkel through a “research project.” He commended Henkel on his parenting skills and disparaged a psychologist who invaded the privacy of his home, making “wild interpretations.” Sometimes, Kentler wrote, an airplane is not a phallic symbol—it is simply a plane. The criminal investigation was suspended.
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