Medan, Indonesia – A child molestation incident in Medan, North Sumatra has highlighted the need for schools and local authorities in Indonesia to better protect their students, particularly when the perpetrators are religious leaders, experts have said.
At a school in Medan, six female students came forward last month to allege that the institution’s male principal, who is also a Protestant priest, had sexually assaulted them.
Mira*, the mother of one of the alleged victims, told Al Jazeera that her 13-year-old daughter had been taken to a local motel on at least four occasions from the age of 11, where she was sexually assaulted.
“My daughter said that the principal told other staff that he was taking her to karate practice outside the school grounds,” Mira said. “When they got to the hotel, he took off her clothes, blindfolded her and forced her to give him oral sex. When she tried to resist, he pulled her head down by her hair to force her to continue.”
Mira filed a police report against the alleged perpetrator earlier this month.
Five additional female students also said they were locked in the principal’s office for “special classes” including English lessons and ballet but they were forced to sit on the man’s lap while he sexually assaulted them.
It is not clear how many cases of child sex abuse in schools happen every year in Indonesia, although the National Commission on Violence Against Women recorded more than 38,000 cases of violence against women and children in 2020, the highest ever.
In recent years the Southeast Asian nation has been rocked by a number of high-profile cases of child sex abuse.
In 2020, the head of an Islamic boarding school in Aceh Province was sentenced to 15 years in prison for assaulting 15 male students that year and a Catholic priest,“Brother Angelo”, who was arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting minors at a children’s home in Jakarta in 2021 is currently on trial.
But many such cases are deliberately kept out of the public eye.
“When the sexual violence perpetrated by religious leaders, it is a very difficult process, because people believe that the perpetrator is unlikely to commit violence, as these leaders are considered holy figures, authoritative and nurturing. Many victims end up being judged by their local community and accused of seducing the perpetrators,” said Ermelina Singereta, a lawyer at the Dike Nomia Law Firm in Jakarta, which is representing the victims in the “Brother Angelo” case.
In Medan, Mira says that the school initially tried to resolve the case internally, with the principal signing a written agreement, in which he apologised to two of the victims and promised not to reoffend, something which Singereta noted is very common.
“Many cases are resolved through religious organisations, due to a lack of education or information in the community,” she said. “Sometimes religious organisations solve the problem of violence against women or children with internal mechanisms even when they have a responsibility to go through state legal mechanisms.”
Indonesia’s child protection laws were created in 2002 and updated in 2014.
Punishments for those convicted of the sexual abuse of a minor can range from between five and 15 years in prison, although a new amendment was proposed by the Indonesian Parliament in 2016 following the gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old teenager in Bengkulu on Sumatra’s west coast.
One of the proposed changes of the 2016 bill allows for the chemical castration of convicted paedophiles by injection. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, signed the use of chemical castration into force in January 2021, although the punishment has yet to be carried out.
Sister Eustochia Monika Nata, a Catholic nun who works with victims of child sex abuse as part of the Volunteer Team for Humanity (TRUK-F) on Flores in Indonesia’s east, told Al Jazeera that in the town of Maumere alone, which has a population of about 90,000 people, she sees about 30 new cases of sexual assault of children and minors every year.
“Those are the cases that are reported to us at TRUK-F, and so of course there are likely many more that are not reported,” she adds.
“Some of the victims become pregnant due to the abuse, and they don’t want to report what has happened to them because they feel ashamed or because they think that they will not be supported by the investigating authorities.”
Ranto Sibarani, a human rights lawyer based in Medan who is representing the six alleged victims at the Protestant school, told Al Jazeera that the legal process can be long and arduous for victims of sexual assault and more needed to be done to support the victims and encourage them to take action.
“In Indonesia, women and children are often in the weakest position to speak up for their rights, so it is important that we empower them to do so,” he said. “In many parts of the country, they are considered second-class citizens because of the patriarchal dominance in Indonesian society.”
He also says there is a need for tougher safeguards to be put in place and has urged the government and the Education Ministry to take steps to monitor educational and religious staff more closely.
“I would ask the government to re-evaluate how both teachers and religious leaders are recruited and how they can get jobs teaching in schools without sufficient background checks and psychological evaluations that would help to keep students safe,” the lawyer said. “Child sex abuse cases are worse than terrorism as we have no idea how many victims have actually been affected.”
On April 16, angry parents staged a protest outside the school in Medan calling for a full investigation and asking staff to cooperate with the local authorities. They also held signs calling for the principal, who has yet to be arrested, to be sacked.
Mira says she is proud of her daughter for speaking out and that her family felt compelled to report the abuse to the authorities out of fear that other victims would be affected in the future.
“The number of victims who have come forward are probably the tip of the iceberg, so he [the principal] has to be stopped otherwise he will do it again,” she said. “He was her teacher but for two years he treated my daughter like an animal.”
“We hope that schools will be the safest of places for parents to educate their children,” added Sibarani. “But this case shows how even schools which purport to promote strong religious values can turn into houses of horror.”
*Mira is a pseudonym to protect her daughter’s identity.