Medan, Indonesia – It is every parent’s worst nightmare.
As six distraught families looked on, the man accused of sexually assaulting their daughters was handed a 10-year prison sentence by the District Court in the city of Medan, Indonesia.
“Our children,” gasped one mother as she slumped in her chair, prompting fears she had fainted.
Benyamin Sitepu, a 37-year-old Christian priest who was also the principal of the Galilea Hosana School in Medan, had received five years less than the maximum 15-year sentence the prosecution had requested.
The presiding judge said he gave Sitepu a shorter sentence because the priest had apologised for his crimes and had previously signed a settlement agreement with two of the victims’ families.
Both the prosecution and Sitepu are appealing the sentence.
Reacting to the verdict, Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch Indonesia, told Al Jazeera the sentence was too short, particularly given Sitepu’s age and Indonesia’s remission system under which most prisoners serve about two-thirds of their sentences.
If Sitepu is granted remission, he could end up serving only about seven years behind bars and be free well before he turns 50.
“If he gets remission, he will be a relatively young man when he is released and will still be a danger to children,” said Harsono, who added that the short prison sentence would only add to the victims’ trauma.
Ranto Sibarani, a human rights lawyer in Medan who represented the families, said they were disappointed that Sitepu had not received the maximum possible sentence and called for religious organisations to take more responsibility for crimes that happen in the institutions that they operate.
“If people commit crimes under the banner of the church, for example, then the church needs to apologise,” Sibarani told Al Jazeera.
“Religious leaders need to make public statements to say that they support the legal process in all sexual assault cases and that they support the victims’ rights to take legal action.”
The junior school in Medan became the centre of a sexual assault scandal in March 2021 when six female students came forward after one told her grandparents she had been abused by the priest.
The girls, who were 13 at the time of the assaults, said Sitepu had locked them in his office under the guise of administering “special lessons”, such as ballet, and touched them inappropriately.
One of the students alleges that Sitepu took her to a local hotel, telling school staff that he was taking her to off-site karate lessons, where he sexually assaulted her and forced her to give him oral sex.
After the student came forward, she was made to take local police to the hotel and identify the room in which she was regularly assaulted – something which both Harsono and Sibarani criticised as further adding to her trauma.
Sibarani added that, in his opinion, judges in Indonesia are hesitant to convict religious leaders or hand them lengthy prison sentences because of historical ideas about respect for those in positions of perceived religious authority.
It had been a difficult time in Indonesia in recent months with a number of disturbing child sex abuse cases making headlines across the country, many of which have involved religious institutions.
In the city of Bandung in West Java, the principal of a Muslim boarding school, 36-year-old Herry Wirawan, was arrested and accused of raping 13 of his female students and impregnating at least eight of them from 2016 onwards.
On January 11, the prosecutor in the case asked for the death penalty if Wirawan is found guilty.
Under Indonesian law, the maximum sentence in child sexual assault cases is usually 15 years, although judges may use their discretion when it comes to sentencing if a case is deemed to be particularly nefarious.
The prosecution also asked that Wirawan be chemically castrated under a new law signed by President Joko Widodo a year ago following the brutal gang rape of a female 14-year-old student in Bengkulu in 2016. The punishment has yet to be used.
On January 20, Lukas Lucky Ngalngola, known as “Brother Angelo”, a Catholic priest who ran an orphanage on the outskirts of Jakarta that was home to more than 40 children, was jailed for 14 years for sexually abusing the children under his care.
When handing down his judgement, the presiding judge, Ahmad Fadil, referenced the 47-year-old priest’s “despicable acts” and said his behaviour had been particularly shocking for “a clergyman who should have set a good example and who should have known that his actions were contrary to religious teachings”.
As the judge passed his sentence via video link due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ngalngola held his hands up in prayer.
“They feel like they are invincible, hiding behind their religion,” said Sibarani. “Who will stand up for the victims when the perpetrators are seen as respected members of the community?”
Ustadz Martono, a Muslim scholar and chairman of the United In Diversity Forum, told Al Jazeera that sexual assault cases that involve religious organisations or religious leaders in Indonesia are often handled internally for fear of bringing shame on the organisations the leaders represent.
“My wish is that these kinds of cases are processed in a much more open way,” he said. “They need to be transparently handled according to the law.”
Members of the Christian community also agree that more needs to be done, and that religious organisations speaking out publicly may help the authorities to be less reticent about making arrests and sending cases to trial.
“We support and appreciate the steps taken by the police and prosecutors in handling the Benyamin Sitepu case in Medan and punishing the perpetrator,” Alex Ramandey, deputy general secretary of the central leadership council of the Indonesian Christian Youth Movement (GAMKI), told Al Jazeera.
“Especially when the perpetrator is also a church figure who has embarrassed Christians.”
Ramandey adds that religious organisations should provide education to the parents of children under their care about how to recognise and report such cases and support those going through the legal process.
It is unclear how many cases of assault involving minors happen every year in Indonesia, as many cases are not reported to the authorities.
According to the Indonesian Witness and Victim Protection Agency (LPSK), 288 child victims applied for protection in 2021. Of that number, more than 65 percent were victims of sexual violence.
The Deputy Chairperson of LPSK, Edwin Partogi Pasaribu, said 25 victims experienced sexual violence in educational institutions.
“We should respect people in line and their religious beliefs, but they also need to be judged by their actions,” said Martono.
“If people are going to break the law, then they shouldn’t be religious leaders. We shouldn’t be embarrassed into silence.
“Morally, we all have a responsibility and we need to acknowledge when these crimes happen and not cover them up.
“If we say nothing, we are complicit.”