Jakarta, Indonesia – Thomas is living every parent’s worst nightmare. In March he discovered his five-year-old son had been raped.
Tim Carr is living every head teacher’s worst nightmare because the incident occurred at the $1,760-a-month Jakarta International School (JIS) – an elite institution attended by the children of wealthy Indonesians and expatriates – for which he is responsible.
The victim was allegedly assaulted in the school toilets by a group of cleaners in two separate incidents in February and March.
Since the case hit the headlines, the victim’s family have found themselves at the centre of a heated national debate on how accusations of rape and child molestation are handled in Indonesia, amid calls for tougher sentencing of paedophiles.
As you may have noticed, we are the first ones, we are the fighters and we want justice done.
Public outrage was stoked again on Sunday as news broke of a serial child-sex offender suspected of molesting at least 52 children, aged between six and 13, in Sukabumi, West Java.
Thomas (whose name has been changed to protect the family’s identity) is angry the assaults could happen to his son on school property and during class time, and told Al Jazeera that he thinks JIS had also been uncooperative in its investigation of the case.
He said that after reporting the incident to the school on March 21, his wife was told not to go to the police for fears of “inefficiency” in handling the case. He said JIS advised them to wait for the results of an internal investigation.
The couple ignored the school’s advice and took their son’s case straight to the authorities. Frustrated at the pace of the investigation and fearing there could be more victims, they then made their claims public on April 15.
“According to our psychologist, there are three types of parents. There are the fighters, there are people that close down, and there’s people that try and deny and hide or run. And as you may have noticed, we are the first ones, we are the fighters and we want justice,” Thomas said. “That’s why we went to the media, because we felt that this wasn’t treated very seriously by the school in the sense of trying to find other victims.”
On April 23 the Indonesian Child Protection Commission (KPAI) revealed that parents of a second victim – a six-year-old boy – reported a separate assault or attempted assault. Six cleaners were arrested in connection with the incidents, one of whom committed suicide in police custody on April 27 after drinking bleach found next to a toilet during a break in his interrogation.
Last week, police told reporters they were anticipating more victims to emerge.
Jakarta Police spokesman Rikwanto – like many Indonesians he uses only one name – said that based on the confessions of the suspects, there had been two incidents involving other kindergarten students. He said three to four suspects were involved in each incident, with one assigned to guard the door.
The police have made a formal request to JIS for photographs of all the students in the classes affected, so the suspects can identify their victims.
On Friday, KPAI Secretary-General Erlinda told Al Jazeera she had received information from parents that the perpetrators were not just members of the cleaning staff – and that the school would also be required to investigate its teaching staff.
|Indonesian security officers stand guard in front of JIS [EPA]|
Adding to the scandal surrounding JIS, Carr last week confirmed that William James Vahey – a prolific child molester being investigated by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who committed suicide in Minnesota in March – had taught at the school between 1992 and 2002.
Indonesian police will reportedly meet with representatives from the FBI to discuss sex-abuse cases committed by Vahey during that period.
“It’s the attitude of the school in this whole case [that’s angered me most],” Thomas said. “Up until we spoke to the press the school had only informed the parents [by email] that ‘an assault’ had taken place, never the type of assault.”
The family last week filed a civil suit against the school for $12m.
Defending JIS’ initial failure to inform parents that a rape had occurred on school property, Carr told Al Jazeera that maintaining the anonymity of the victim had been the school’s priority, in compliance with the family’s wishes.
“In my meeting with [the victim’s father] early on, we talked about the need to protect not only the identity of the child and of the family, but also any sort of stigma that would come from identifying the type of abuse,” he said.
“I received at no point from the parents [a statement of] ‘please feel free to share the fact that it was sexual abuse.’ I don’t see it as a cover-up, and we believe that we did the right thing and honoured the wishes of the parents. We had no intention of hiding things that would make other children less safe.”
Carr said an external company had been contracted to carry out a security audit of the case and to present the results to the school’s board of trustees. Psychological support is being offered to all families who believe their children may have been abused.
Sex-assault on the rise
A slew of child sex abuse cases have been reported in the Indonesian media in recent months, but they rarely generate the public interest that the incidents at JIS have attracted.
On Sunday, dozens of investigators were deployed to look into multiple cases of sexual violence allegedly carried out by a 24-year-old factory worker in Sukabumi, West Java. The man confessed to molesting 47 children, but police said as of Tuesday the number had reached 110 suspected victims.
Two weeks ago a police officer in North Sumatra’s Aceh province was arrested for molesting five children between the ages of nine and 10.
Foreigners, in general, are highly respected in Indonesia... and suddenly this bad thing happens to them, it's become the focus of the exposure and the investigation by government bodies.
The KPAI said it received about 3,000 reports of sexual abuse of minors nationwide in 2013, double the figure from five years ago, with 30 percent of cases reported to have occurred at schools.
But child psychologist Seto Mulyadi described the number of cases as an “iceberg phenomenon”, with many incidents going unreported.
“Traditionally sexual abuse is considered taboo, and is not revealed by the family,” he said, adding the status of children in Indonesian society compounded problems of non-disclosure.
“Children are considered as ‘the property’ of the parents, like a kind of lower class community. Parents, teachers, police, social workers, they don’t usually consider children’s rights to be that important.”
He said a lack of sexual education left children impressionable and easily manipulated.
KPAI last year declared rising figures of child rape a “national emergency”, yet it has taken the incidents at JIS, an elite school attended largely by foreign children – to amplify calls for tougher sentencing of convicted paedophiles.
“Foreigners are highly respected in Indonesia, so somebody who’s regarded highly and is popular, and suddenly this bad thing happens to them, it’s become the focus of the exposure and the investigation by government bodies,” Seto said.
The maximum sentence for a child-sex offender in Indonesia is 15 years and a fine of up to $26,000, but campaigners say most of those convicted typically only receive three to five years in jail.
Earlier this week Minister Linda Amalia Sari Gumelar, whose portfolio includes child protection, called for a minimum penalty of 20 years in prison for those found guilty of child-sex offences.