updated 3/3/2005 10:13:09 AM ET 2005-03-03T15:13:09

Sixty-six people went on trial Thursday, accused of participating in a pedophilia ring in which children and babies were prostituted for food and small sums of money.

Prosecutors contend that dozens of children — ages 6 months to 14 years — were raped by their parents or offered to other adults for sex from 1999 to 2002.

Some of the 45 victims, who are now in the care of social services, were expected to testify by closed-circuit television. The children will not appear in court.

Authorities were offering psychological counseling to the jurors and six judges to help them cope with sordid testimony of child abuse and gang rape expected during the about four-month trial, to be held in a specially built courtroom in Angers.

Lured to 'play doctor'
Many of the defendants are from low-income households in the working class Saint-Leonard neighborhood of Angers, and some were themselves reportedly abused as children.

Three couples at the center of the prostitution ring lured their children and those of their relatives “to play doctor” with the adults, the newspaper Le Monde reported. One young girl was allegedly raped 45 times.

Defense lawyers planned to argue that government social workers, who were monitoring many of the suspects, failed in their responsibilities or turned a blind eye to signs of abuse. Some of the defendants cited in the 420-page legal filing are illiterate and don’t fully understand the charges against them, lawyers said.

Thirty-nine people face up to 30 years in prison if convicted of raping minors under age 15 and on prostitution charges. Other suspects face up 10 years behind bars if convicted of sexual violence against minors and failure to denounce crimes.

“To my knowledge, we’ve never seen a criminal case of this magnitude in France,” said Pascal Rouiller, a defense lawyer for five suspects.

Some believed at large
Others thought to have participated in the ring while hiding their identities behind masks are believed to still be at large. “The children speak of one tattooed woman who is not in the defendants’ dock,” Rouiller said.

The shadow of another pedophilia trial in the northern town of Outreau last year hangs over the case. That trial exposed shortcomings of the justice system because some defendants were wrongly accused.

The Angers case first became known in November 2000, when a 16-year-old girl alleged she had been raped by her mother’s boyfriend and his brother. The men had previous records for sexual violence.

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