The story was appalling. Absolutely appalling. It was a tale of the abuse and exploitation of a 13-year old girl, made all the more heartwrenching by the fact that the girl was telling the story herself, on nationwide television. My wife and I sat, transfixed by what we were seeing, as we listened to Masha calmly describe her five-year ordeal at the hands of her captor and tormentor. Hearing her speak, we could tell that she was forced to relive bits and pieces of her traumatic experiences as the interview progressed, but she pressed on, determined to tell her story to the public.

Masha does not have the face of a typical 13-year old girl. While there are no visible physical scars, she looks old beyond her years, her time as an abused child having robbed her of her youth. As she told her story –- of years of rape and abuse, of having been starved to delay the onset of puberty, of being forced to pose nude for pictures that have since been distributed all over the Internet –- we realized with horror that the man who did this to Masha was not some random stranger. He was her adoptive father, Matthew Mancuso, a 46-year-old divorced man who had systematically raped and abused his own biological daughter years before.

Yet despite the fact that a simple interview with Mancuso’s ex-wife and daughter would have revealed him to be a pedophile, Mancuso was allowed to adopt Masha, then five years old, from her native country of Russia, selecting her from a book of pictures as if she were an item on a menu. With a minimum of investigation, Mancuso simply handed a New Jersey adoption agency a check for $25,000, then flew to Russia to claim his child bride.

Masha paid for Mancuso’s crime with the next five years of her life.

Childhood, Interrupted

Masha was born on August 25, 1992, in Novoshakhtinsk, a rundown mining town in rural Russia. Her biological father left when Masha was only a few weeks old, leaving Masha’s mother, an alcoholic, to raise Masha on her own.

Although only a small child at the time, Masha remembers that her mother “seemed to live her life inside a bottle.” Her mother’s alcoholism would often explode into fits of drunken rage, culminating in an incident in which she stabbed Masha in the neck when she was only three years old. After the stabbing, the Russian police removed Masha from the house and placed her in a state-run orphanage.

After two years of living in what can only be described as a warehouse, Masha was told that someone was finally going to come to take her home. At first, Masha hoped that it was some member of her family, but she soon found out that she was to be adopted by a single American man. Although disappointed that she would not have a new mother, Masha was nonetheless happy to be leaving the Russian orphanage.

Rape Is A Four-Letter Word

Masha’s smiles soon turned to tears, however, as Mancuso forced her to sleep naked with him in his bed on her very first night in America. Masha didn’t even have a room of her own. Mancuso clearly intended that she sleep with him every night. The sleeping soon turned to rape and forcible sodomy, which Masha endured as best she could.

Soon after the rapes came the pictures. Mancuso started off with typical photos of Masha at first, allowing her to be fully clothed. But these seemingly innocent pictures soon gave way to nude photos with suggestive poses, photos of Masha chained to a wall, and photos of Masha performing various sexual acts. Mancuso took these photos and distributed them around the Internet, trading them for kiddie porn kept by other pedophiles.

Mancuso's pictures became wildly popular in the twisted pedophile world, particularly because the sheer number of photos allowed viewers to follow her as she aged, bringing Masha a perverse kind of cult following.

The Authorities Take Notice

It also brought Masha to the attention of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Toronto Police Service, who understandably wanted to know how a sex offender was able to take such a series of pictures of the same girl over such an extended period of time. In an attempt to identify Masha by the locations in the pictures, the authorities had her digitally removed from the photos –- leaving only a blurry spot in the middle of each picture –- and released the pictures to the public in 2003 in the hopes that someone could identify them.

The strategy worked. Within a few weeks, the location shown in the pictures was identified as the Port Orleans Resort at Walt Disney World in Florida. Shortly thereafter, the case broke wide open when a Chicago police sergeant, who had gone undercover and managed to trade pictures with Mancuso online, gave Mancuso’s IP address to the FBI, which showed him to be living in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh field office sent two agents to investigate, and found Mancuso living with Masha, who was by then ten years old.

Masha was immediately removed from the house, and Mancuso was placed under arrest. Mancuso quickly broke under the pressure, and in August, 2003 pled guilty to federal charges that put him away for a 15-year term. Later that year, he also plead guilty to 11 counts of sexual abuse and abuse-related charges in Pennsylvania state court, resulting in a 35-70 year sentence that will begin only when his federal sentence has been completed. Possible charges in Florida, where many of the pictures were taken, remain pending.

How?

That’s the obvious question, isn’t it? How could something like this happen? Aren’t there rules to prevent a known child molester from essentially ordering his victims off the Internet and bringing them into his home?

Well, yes, there are. Rules requiring complete background checks of any prospective parent, for example. Rules requiring interviews with a prospective parent’s close relatives. And rules requiring follow-up visits to the home once the child has been placed. Had these rules been followed in Masha’s case, none of this would have happened.

But these rules weren’t followed in Masha’s case, and they are too often ignored in many other international adoptions, as well. International adoption is a big business. One report recently estimated that U.S. parents have spent close to 500 million dollars on Russian adoptions alone since 1991, the year that Russia began allowing the practice. With that much money involved, it’s easy to see how a careless –- or unscrupulous –- adoption agency might not necessarily try its best to find out the truth, and might look the other way even if it did.

This incentive on the part of adoption agencies to keep the spigot open, as it were, could not have been made more clear than when the agencies and their lobbying groups pressured ABC to bury its segment about Masha on its Primetime news magazine. For several weeks prior to the airing of the segment, these special interest groups mounted an intensive e-mail campaign against ABC, claiming that singling out Masha for special attention unfairly cast other international adoptions in an unflattering light.

ABC resisted, airing Masha’s interview first on December 20, 2005, then with a follow-up on August 31, 2006. But don’t entertain any notion that ABC was acting out of any noble motive in doing so. The spectacular nature of the story was ratings gold, and ABC was not about to let the story get away.

Stark evidence of ABC’s sensationalist motives can be seen in the photographs aired during the Primetime segment. While the Toronto police digitally removed Masha completely from the pictures before publicizing them, ABC broadcast photographs with Masha’s figure cut out and replaced with white. This allowed every single viewer, including my wife and myself, unfortunately, to know the exact poses and positions Masha was forced to endure while in captivity. ABC didn’t have to do this. The technology exists to blur out or remove figures without revealing such information. But ABC took the low road in pursuit of higher ratings, essentially raping Masha all over again, in front of the nation.

Where Is She Now?

Well, I don’t know exactly where she is, and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t publish it here. But I can tell you that Masha has been adopted by a woman who was herself the victim of child sexual abuse, and is now receiving therapy, attending school, and living quietly with her new adoptive mother.

Masha has also become an advocate for adoption reform, testifying before Congress and appearing with John Kerry in support of Masha’s Law, a bill that tripled the penalties for downloading child pornography from the Internet. President Bush recently signed the bill into law, influenced in no small measure by Masha’s heroic testimony before Congress.

Despite her own tragic experience, Masha has also petitioned Russian president Vladimir Putin not to restrict U.S. adoptions because of her case, remembering only too well her own time in Russia’s orphan mills. Masha hopes to attend school in the United States, and then to return eventually to Russia, where she would like to work for adoption reform in her home country.

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