Altogether the accused face 127 criminal counts, including rape, kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault of a child and making child abuse material. File picture: Pixabay
New South Wales - The Arcade Circus operated out of a dilapidated green-roofed brick warehouse pressed snugly against a hillside in Katoomba, an Australian town in the country's scenic Blue Mountains. A website affiliated with the school says the space offered neophyte performers - including special needs children - the "opportunity to learn and master circus skill in an environment balanced with circus fun and discipline."

"My daughter joined the circus classes last year and we attended weekly for a few terms," one mother told the Daily Mail recently. "She loved it . . . we had absolutely no inkling of anything sinister."

Then last September, parents received an email from the school saying classes were canceled, 9 News Sydney reported. No reason was provided.

Australian law enforcement now alleges the circus school not as a venue for big top entertainment but a horror show.

Last Monday, investigators arrested seven individuals - two men and five women - affiliated with the school for allegedly sexually abusing three young boys between 2014 and 2016, according to a news release from the New South Wales Police Force.

Altogether the accused face 127 criminal counts, including rape, kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault of a child and making child abuse material. Citing police documents, The Australian reported the young victims were used in "blood rituals" on at least one occasion. Law enforcement has not detailed how the victims knew the defendants. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported the three boys were not students at the school.

On Thursday, a magistrate with the Penrith Local Court released the names of four of the accused: Therese Ann Cook, 58, the circus school's founder; Paul Christopher Cook, 52; Yyani Cook-Williams, 29; and Clarissa Meredith, 23. The names of three additional suspects - a 17-year-old girl; an 18-year-old man; and a 20-year-old man - have yet to be released because they were juveniles when the alleged crimes took place.

Therese Cook and Paul Cook are brother and sister, News.com.au reported. Yyani Cook-Williams, a Sydney actress and burlesque dancer, is reportedly Therese Cook's daughter. Meredith is Therese Cook's adopted daughter.

"Police will allege the group participated in ongoing sexual and physical abuse of three boys, who were known to them, between 2014 and 2016," police said in a statement. Authorities say all the alleged victims were under eight at the time of the abuse.

Bryan Wrench, an attorney representing the four named suspects, addressed the charges after the defendants were denied bail this week. "They are pleading not guilty ... they deny these charges," the attorney said.

A spokesperson with the New South Wales Police Force declined to comment on the case.

"In all honesty, I am shocked and it is hard to process," a former teacher from the circus school told the Australian. "They were both nothing but kind and focused on getting this circus up and running ... I saw nothing and did not expect this."

Citing court documents, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported last week at least one of the assaults occurred on April 25, 2016 - Anzac Day, an Australian holiday honoring military veterans. According to the network, Therese Cook and Yyani Cook-Williams allegedly raped two boys that day. The victims were 4 and 7. Cook-Williams also allegedly forced the two boys to have sex together on the same occasion.

Paul Cook stands accused of filming the aggravated sexual assaults. Meredith is accused of raping one of the victims seven times.

ABC also reported police say the victims were subjected to a "blood ritual" where they were forced to drink their own blood.

According to police, the abuse first came to the attention of law enforcement in July 2017. That month, detectives from the Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Squad established a special strike force to investigate the abuse.

The Washington Post