The Oprah Show - Meet Masha

Date: 2006-01-17
Source: oprah.com

At 13 years old, Masha has already survived the unthinkable. She was born in southern Russia to an alcoholic mother and a father she never knew. Her own mother tried to kill her when she was only 4 years old by stabbing her in the back of the neck with a kitchen knife. Soon after recovering from her traumatic ordeal, Masha was sent to an orphanage where she prayed that a good family would come to rescue her.

Meanwhile, 41-year-old Matthew Mancuso, a divorced father in Pennsylvania, was looking for a little girl to adopt. He contacted a New Jersey adoption agency requesting information on 5-year-old Caucasian girls, and chose Masha from a videotape. After months of waiting, Mancuso traveled to Russia to meet his new daughter. He visited Masha several times at the orphanage, took her to nice dinners, and bought her candy.

To Masha, Mr. Mancuso seemed like her knight in shining armor. But nothing could have been farther from the truth. What she didn't know was the adoption agency failed to properly check her new father's background. No phone calls were made to his ex-wife or to his biological daughter. Back in the states, Masha expected a nice American home with a bedroom all her own.

In her new home, Masha was surprised to discover that she didn't have a bedroom. Instead, Mancuso made Masha sleep with him. The first night, Masha says, she was unable to sleep as Mancuso tried to fondle her. Within days, Mancuso began molesting Masha every night in bed.

Her new father turned out to be a diabolical child pornographer who forced Masha to live as his sex slave. Mancuso took hundreds of pornographic pictures of Masha, then posted them on the Internet, where he traded them with other pedophiles. He dressed Masha as a young bride and forced her to pretend they were getting married. He chained Masha in his basement. He starved his adopted daughter to keep her young body from maturing. And, he forced Masha to take showers with him every day.

Mancuso kept a close watch on Masha, isolating her socially. "I wasn't usually allowed to go outside or see anybody or walk around in the street," says Masha. "He'd always have to come with me. I just felt like I was trapped."

Masha attended school, but says she was too scared to tell anyone about her situation. Masha's neighbor friends would sometimes come over to play, but sleepovers weren't allowed. For five whole years, Masha says, nobody—not a single social worker—came to check on little Masha.

Posing as a pedophile, Chicago area police officer Mike Zaglifa discovered Mancuso in an online chat room. Sergeant Zaglifa says his instinct told him this man was an absolute danger to children. Working with other agents, he traced Mancuso's Internet address to a location near Pittsburgh, where he was later arrested.

During their investigation, police officials had no way of knowing that the little girl in the photographs was Mancuso's adopted daughter. Her rescue, says Sergeant Zaglifa, was an unexpected reward for what he calls the "physically and emotionally draining" work of capturing child predators.

Sergeant Zaglifa says that to gain proper perspective on the severity of child pornography, it's important to call them "child sex abuse images." "When those images are being made," says Sergeant Zaglifa, "that's sex abuse in progress." He offers his expert advice for how parents can protect their children: "The number one thing is: No chat rooms."

Two years ago, Matthew Mancuso was sentenced to 15 years on federal pornography charges. He also pleaded guilty to the horrible sex crimes he committed against Masha and was sentenced to serve 35 to 70 years in prison. The house where he and Masha lived has since been sold to a new family.

Rachelle, Mancuso's biological daughter, says she shares a painful bond with Masha. She grew up in the same house with the same secret shame. She says she painfully remembers how her father began molesting her when she, too, was just 5 years old.

After years of abuse, Rachelle's parents divorced when she was 10 years old. But she says the sexual abuse intensified during weekend visitations with her father. After six years of torment, Rachelle claims Mancuso stopped when she reached puberty. No longer interested in Rachelle, the two lost nearly all contact.

Rachelle never revealed the terrible secret about her father to anyone, until the FBI contacted her during their investigation. She now feels that if she had told someone, Masha might have been spared. "It goes through my mind every day and I feel so much guilt," says Rachelle. "And I feel partly responsible for what happened to her, and I beat myself up about it all the time because I feel that it was my fault that I did not say anything."

Because she had lost contact with her father, Rachelle says she didn't know the details of the adoption. For years, she thought her father had adopted a boy, who she thought would be safe from harm. A chance encounter with a family friend informed Rachelle of the truth. She says her "heart dropped" when she found out Mancuso had a daughter. Still, she says fear and shame prevented her from alerting authorities. "I didn't know what to do," says a tearful Rachelle. "I had never told my secret to anybody and I didn't plan on telling my secret to anybody ever. It was something I was going to take with me to the grave."

Meeting Masha for the first time was a gut-wrenching experience for Rachelle. "I want to tell Masha I'm very sorry," says Rachelle. "I really wish that I had said something when I was a kid because maybe Masha would have been spared this hell of a life that she had to go through."

Oprah commends Rachelle for admitting her feelings. "I want you to let go of the guilt of it," Oprah tells Rachelle. "But I really do think that it's good that you're here saying this, because I want every child out there who is being molested to know that whoever is molesting you is going to molest somebody else."

"Not only when you speak up do you save yourself, you get to save a whole lot of other people, too," says Oprah.

After all the terrible things Masha has endured, she finally has the mother she's always dreamed of having. Three years ago, Faith Allen was a busy foster mom when she heard about a desperate little girl who needed a home, and decided right away to adopt Masha.

Because of the deplorable treatment Masha suffered, Faith says that in many ways, Masha was like a baby she had to teach. "When she first came to me, I had to teach her how she had to bathe, how she had to eat," says Faith.

Today, Masha finally has a bedroom of her own. Though her wounds are far from healed, life might be looking up for this young survivor. "I feel really safe and happy for the first time," says Masha. "It's like starting over."

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