LORIENT, France (AFP) - A retired French surgeon may have raped or sexually abused as many as 349 children over his near 30-year career, a prosecutor investigating what could be France's biggest-ever paedophilia case said on Friday (Dec 20).
Joel Le Scouarnec, 68, is set to go on trial in March for the rape and sexual abuse of four child victims.
Allegations against him cover the three decades he practised in hospitals across central and western France.
They include accusations that he raped a six-year-old girl living in his neighbourhood, raped a young relative and sexually assaulted another, abused a child patient, and indecently exposing himself.
After charges were brought against him in these cases, investigators discovered secret diaries in which Le Scouarnec described sex scenes involving scores more children.
The children were named, allowing police to track them down to obtain their testimony, leading to additional charges.
Le Scouarnec's lawyers have said the journal entries were "fantasies".
On Friday, Laureline Peyrefitte, chief prosecutor of the town of Lorient in Brittany, northwest France, said the number of possible victims now stood at 349.
In many cases, the alleged crimes were committed too long ago to be prosecuted.
In total, 229 people have been questioned by investigators, of whom 197 have pressed charges, said Peyrefitte, adding the case was made "extraordinary" by the way the alleged crimes came to light and the large number of suspected victims.
A lawyer for some of the alleged victims, Francesca Satta, had told AFP that "they remember perfectly well what they endured but never talked about it because they were afraid."
The new count raises the prospect of Le Scouarnec, who was given a four-month suspended jail sentence in 2005 for possession of child pornography, being at the centre of France's biggest-ever paedophilia trial.
The retired doctor risks up to 20 years in jail if convicted on the first set of charges, for which he will be tried in the southwestern town of Saintes from March 13 to 17.
He is currently in prison, awaiting trial.