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Jakarta Post

Childhood victims struggle to report sexual abuse in Catholic Church

  • Ivany Atina Arbi, Evi Mariani and Dwi Atmanta

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, July 28, 2020   /   09:19 am
Childhood victims struggle to report sexual abuse in Catholic Church Sexual abuse in church (JP/Hengky Wijaya)

Twenty-seven years ago, an 11-year-old girl knelt beside a priest in a mandatory confession organized by her Catholic school in Jakarta. She told the priest her sin: disobeying her parents. As he spoke the absolution, the girl felt his hands touching her body.

The confession lasted five minutes and did not take place in a traditional partitioned confessional. Twice a year, the school arranged the event, usually before Christmas and Easter, and brought dozens of school children to a special confession space in a chapel, where there was no partition to separate the child and the priest.

“I felt uneasy and knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t tell what was off,” said the former student of Sang Timur Catholic elementary school, which is located next to the the Maria Bunda Karmel (MBK) Church.

Sisca, who has chosen to take an alias to protect her privacy, said the same priest groped her again a few times during subsequent mandatory confessions. Not until she was a teenager did she realize that she was a victim of sexual abuse.

“I told my mom, who eventually reported it to the church, but I didn’t see any changes. The priest still served in the church. He even serves now,” she told The Jakarta Post in February. Sisca did not know how or to whom her mother had reported the incident.

‘I didn’t want to get bad grades’

Ellen, another student at Sang Timur, who has also chosen to use an alias, said the same priest had abused her. The first incident occurred in his office after she interviewed him for a school project in junior high school. She thought it was an accident that the priest's lips had brushed her cheek and the corner of her lips.

Read also: Justice delayed, denied for victims of sexual abuse in Catholic Church

The priest, a Carmelite, was then moved to another location for reasons Ellen did not know. But while Ellen was in high school at the same institution, the priest returned. “At that time, I liked to pray in the church in the morning before school, even though I was a Protestant,” said Ellen.

“The priest usually blessed the students after the prayer, and sometimes he kissed their foreheads. But when it was my turn, he kissed my lips,” Ellen said. “This time, I was sure it was not an accident.”

Ellen told her friends what had happened. She said one of her friends told the story to a nun at the school.

But instead of getting a response from the church or the school, Ellen received a phone call at home. It was the priest. She thought he would ask for forgiveness, but instead, he acted as if nothing had happened and said, “Hello, what are you doing?”

“I told him right away to leave me alone,” said Ellen, who is now 37 years old.

Both Sisca and Ellen thought it was unacceptable that the priest was still a member of the parish and school, but neither lodged an official complaint. They did, however, share their experience with certain members of the church community. Ellen said she did not officially report her experience because she did not want to get bad grades.

‘We never received victims’ reports’

Father Andreas Yudhi Wiyadi, who was the head of the parish in February when interviewed him, said he had never heard any reports about the priest. “I swear I don’t know about [the alleged abuse]. Besides, the chapel was never used for confessions,” Yudhi said.

Read also: Broken trust: Catholic Church and sexual abuse

When she was told of this, Sisca said Father Yudhi perhaps did not know about the confessional arrangements and the compound layout 27 years ago.

Father Budiono, the head of the Indonesian Carmelite order or called the Provincial, said he had never received “reports of sexual abuse directly from victims” in the MBK Church. "If we had received such reports, we would have definitely done something about it," he said.

He said the Carmelites had a set of regulations, outlined in a 2017 book called Norms of Behavior, to handle allegations against clergymen.

"According to the book, we need reports from victims in order to further investigate [the alleged assault], as well as medical or psychological evaluations of the victim and [alleged] perpetrator," Budiono said. When asked whether an incident from 27 years ago could still be reported to the order, Budiono said the book did not specify a procedure for such a situation. "We’d have to consult with our legal advisor first."

‘He died as a brother’

The allegations in the MBK Church are not the only ones to have clung to the Indonesian Catholic Church while the alleged perpetrators remain in positions of authority.

One victim said he had been sexually abused by a church brother – a title for a layman who has made a religious oath, usually of poverty, chastity and obedience – while he was attending a Catholic junior high school in Yogyakarta in the late 1980s. His school was managed by a community of brothers and three to four of them lived in a building on campus. Agustinus, who requested a pseudonym to protect his privacy, said he and his friends sometimes went to the brothers’ living area to do their homework until the evening.

Sexual abuse in churchSexual abuse in church (JP/Sandy Riady)

One of the brothers asked him to spend the night there, but when Agustinus said he wanted to sleep in another room, the brother insisted that they share a bed. “I didn’t think anything would happen because we were both male,” Agustinus said in February.

In bed, he said, the brother touched him inappropriately. The teenager felt it was not right but did not know it was abuse. He said it happened several times until he decided he had to stop it. He kept his distance despite the brother’s protests. Later, some of his friends told him that the same brother had abused them.

While attending a seminary high school, Agustinus came to realize that he was sexually abused. He also learned about the vow of chastity and the brother’s violation of it. But he never made an official report to anyone. “I heard he died last year, and to my knowledge, he died as a brother,” Agustinus said.

The Post and have been investigating allegations of sexual abuse in the Indonesian Catholic Church since January of this year. Journalists interviewed four childhood victims, including one who said he was abused in the St. Herkulanus Church community in Depok, West Java.

Of the four, three had never filed an official complaint. The other, the victim from St. Herkulanus, spoke about the incident 20 years later, after the parents of one of the alleged abuser’s other victims reported the case to the police.

For the minors, speaking up was not easy. The victims of alleged sexual violence at St. Herkulanus Church in Depok, West Java, stayed silent for years. The suspect, Syahril Parlindungan, confessed in a handwritten note obtained by the Post that he had sexually assaulted 13 boys since the year 2000.

The case became public after the parents of a victim reported the case to the police in May. They said their son had been regularly molested by the 42-year-old from January to March of this year. The investigation revealed decades of assault, and more victims spoke up to the police.

Pope Francis, in an apostolic letter titled “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” from May 2019, instructed all Catholic dioceses and orders to establish protocols to safeguard minors and vulnerable adults by June 2020. These protocols were to include a sexual abuse reporting and investigation mechanism.

Protocols in the making

In an interview on July 23, Father Sunu Hardiyanta, who was instructed by Father Ignatius Cardinal Suharyo to represent him in an interview with the Post and, said that all dioceses and orders in Indonesia were in the process of creating protocols but that none had yet created a system up to the Vatican’s standards. Father Sunu said a team had been working for years to establish the protocols.

Read also: Depok Catholic Church molester launched 'systematic' assault for years, lawyer says

On July 23, Father Joseph Kristanto, who is on the protocol team with Father Sunu, said he had prepared two new books. One was called the “green book” and the other was the “yellow book”, referring to the color of their covers.

The “green book” was published in January of this year and focuses on prevention, Father Kristanto said. The second one is in the final stages of publication and will be dedicated to handling allegations of child sexual abuse.

“What are the victims afraid of in the Catholic Church? Victims who report their cases will be protected,” Kristanto said.

Father Sunu said he understood why victims were reluctant to report. He cited the social stigma and culture of victim blaming. “We need a team that constantly works to help the victims. We have people who have been willing to do that,” he said. In his own order, the Society of Jesus, a special team to handle reports was in the making, he added.

An official book published in 2017 requires the Catholic Church to process a sexual abuse or harassment report even if it is lodged anonymously or if it concerns events that happened decades ago.

Sisca said she would like to report the case under the new rules "even though the perpetrator has become very old", to make people aware of the danger of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. "I never made an official report about the assault because I didn't know the procedure," she said.