Medan, Indonesia “It was every parent’s worst nightmare.”
While six insane families watched, the man, accused of sexually abusing their daughters, was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the District Court in Medan, Indonesia.
“Our children,” gasped the mother of a child, reclining in her chair, fearing she had fainted.
Benjamin Sitepu, a 37-year-old Christian priest who was also the principal of the Galileo Hosanna School in Medan, received five years less than the maximum 15-year sentence requested by prosecutors.
The chairman said he had given Sitepu a shorter sentence because the priest had apologized for his crimes and had previously signed an agreement with two of the victims’ families.
Both the prosecution and Sitepu are appealing the sentence.
In response to the sentence, Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch Indonesia, told Al Jazeera that the sentence was too short, especially given Sitepu’s age and Indonesia’s pardon system, which says most prisoners serve about two-thirds of their sentences.
If Sitepu is pardoned, he can only spend about seven years behind bars and be free before he turns 50.
“If he receives 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 a short prison sentence would only increase the trauma of the victims.
Ranto Sibarani, a human rights lawyer in Medan who represented the families, said he was disappointed that Sitepu had not received the maximum possible sentence and called on religious organizations to take more responsibility for crimes committed in the institutions that operate.
“If people commit crimes under the banner of the church, for example, then the church must apologize,” Sibarani told Al Jazeera.
“Religious leaders must make public statements stating that they support the trial in all cases of sexual violence and that they support the rights of victims to take legal action.”
The junior high school in Medan became the center of a sexual assault scandal in March 2021, when six schoolgirls came out after one told her grandparents that she had been abused by a priest.
The girls, who were 13 at the time of the attacks, said Sitepu locked them in his office undercover, giving them “special lessons” like ballet and touching them inappropriately.
One of the students claimed that Sitepu took her to a local hotel, telling school staff that he was taking her to karate classes off the court, where he sexually abused her and forced her to have oral sex with him.
After the student showed up, she was asked to take local police to the hotel and identify the room where she was regularly attacked – something that both Harsono and Sibarani criticized for further exacerbating her trauma.
Sibarani added that he said Indonesian judges were reluctant to convict religious leaders or issue long prison sentences for historical ideas of respect for those who hold positions of religious authority.
In recent months, Indonesia has had a difficult time with a number of alarming cases of child sexual abuse appearing in headlines across the country, many of which are linked to religious institutions.
In the city of Bandung in West Java, the director of a Muslim boarding school, 36-year-old Harry Uiravan, was arrested and charged with raping 13 of his students and having conceived at least eight of them since 2016.
On January 11, the prosecutor in the case demanded the death penalty if Wirawan was found guilty.
Under Indonesian law, the maximum sentence in cases of sexual abuse of children is usually 15 years, although judges can use their discretion when it comes to sentencing if a case is considered particularly unfair.
Prosecutors also demanded that Wirawan be chemically castrated under a new law signed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo a year after the brutal gang rape of a 14-year-old student in Bengkulu in 2016. The sentence has not yet been implemented.
On January 20, Lucas 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 children in his care.
In his sentencing, Presiding Judge Ahmad Fadil referred to the 47-year-old priest’s “despised actions” and said his behavior was particularly shocking to a priest who should set a good example and know that his actions contradicted of religious teachings. “
As the judge handed down his verdict via video link over the coronavirus pandemic, Ngalngola raised his hands in prayer.
“They feel invincible, hiding behind their religion,” Sibarani said. “Who will stand up for the victims when the perpetrators are seen as respected members of the community?”
Ustad Martono, a Muslim scholar and chairman of the United In Diversity Forum, told Al Jazeera that sexual assaults involving religious organizations or religious leaders in Indonesia are often handled internally for fear of embarrassing the organizations they represent. .
“My wish is for this kind of case to be handled in a much more open way,” he said. “They must be dealt with transparently in accordance with the law.
Members of the Christian community also agree that more needs to be done and that religious organizations that speak in public can help authorities be less restrained in arresting and prosecuting cases.
“We support and appreciate the steps taken by the police and the prosecutor’s office to investigate the case of Benjamin Sitepu in Medan and punish the perpetrator,” Alex Ramandei, deputy secretary general of the Indonesian Christian Youth Movement (GAMKI), told Al Alex Ramandei. Jazeera.
“Especially when the perpetrator is also a church figure who has embarrassed Christians.
Ramandi added that religious organizations should provide education to children’s parents, caring for them on how to recognize and report such cases, and support those who go through the legal process.
It is not clear how many cases of juvenile assault occur each 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.
LPSK Deputy Chairman Edwin Partoghi Pasaribu said 25 victims had experienced sexual violence in educational institutions.
“We have to respect people in line and their religious beliefs, but they also have to be judged by their actions,” Martono said.
“If people are going to break the law, they don’t have to be religious leaders. We should not be ashamed of silence.
“Morally, we are all responsible and we must acknowledge when these crimes are happening and not cover them up.
“If we say nothing, we are accomplices.”