Sun. May 29th, 2022

Medan, Indonesia – It was every parent’s worst nightmare.

While six upset families are watching, the man accused of sexually assaulting their daughters has been sentenced to 10 years in prison by the district court in the city of Medan, Indonesia.

“Our children,” the mother of one gasped as she sank into her chair, causing fears of fainting.

Benyamin Sitepu, a 37-year-old Christian priest who was also the principal of the Galilee Hosana school in Medan, received five years less than the maximum sentence of 15 years requested by the prosecutor.

The presiding judge said he imposed a shorter sentence on Sitepu because the priest apologized for his crimes and had previously signed a settlement agreement with two of the victims’ families.

Both the prosecutor and Sitepu are appealing against the sentence.

Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch Indonesia, said in response to the verdict to Al Jazeera that the sentence was too short, especially given Sitepu’s age and Indonesia’s pardon system under which most prisoners serve about two-thirds of their sentences.

If Sitepu gets pardon, he could eventually only serve about seven years behind bars and be free before he even turns 50.

“If he is forgiven, he will be a relatively young man when he is released and he will still be a danger to children,” said Harsono, who added that the short prison sentence would only contribute to the trauma of the victims.

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 on religious organizations to take more responsibility for crimes committed in the institutions that they operate.

“For example, if people commit crimes under the banner of the church, then the church must apologize,” Sibarani told Al Jazeera.

“Religious leaders must 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 exterior of the Galilee Hosana School is a mix of pink, blue, yellow and greenThe allegations against Benyamin Sitepu came to light last year after one young girl told her grandmother she had been abused [Aisyah Llewellyn/Al Jazeera]

The junior school in Medan became the center of a sexual assault scandal in March 2021 when six female students emerged after one told her grandparents that she had been abused by the priest.

The girls, who were 13 at the time of the assaults, said Sitepu locked them in his office under the guise of giving them “special lessons” such as ballet and touching them inappropriately.

One of the students claims that Sitepu took her to a local hotel and told school staff that he was taking her to karate lessons from the premises, where he sexually assaulted her and forced her to give him oral sex.

After the student emerged, she was told to take local police to the hotel and identify the room in which she was regularly assaulted – something that both Harsono and Sibarani criticized as further contributing to her trauma.

Sibarani added that judges in Indonesia were, in his view, reluctant to convict religious leaders or impose long prison sentences because of historical ideas about respecting those in positions of observed religious authority.

New punishment

It has been a difficult time in Indonesia in recent months with a number of disturbing child sex abuse cases are making headlines across the country, of which many religious institutions were involved.

In the city of Bandung in West Java, the principal of a Muslim boarding school, 36-year-old Herry Wirawan, was arrested and charged with raping 13 of his female students and from 2016 onwards fertilizing at least eight of them.

On January 11, the prosecutor in the case sought the death penalty if Wirawan was found guilty.

Ranto Sibarani, a human rights lawyer representing the families, speaks to journalistsThe families’ lawyer Ranto Sibarani is appealing the sentence as too lenient, especially as Sitepu is only 37 [Aisyah Llewellyn/Al Jazeera]

Under Indonesian law, the maximum sentence in cases of sexual assault of children is usually 15 years, although judges may exercise their discretion when it comes to sentencing if a case is deemed to be particularly fraudulent.

The prosecution also called for Wirawan to be chemically castrated under a new law signed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo a year ago following the brutal gang rape of a female 14-year-old student in Bengkulu in 2016. The sentence has yet to be used . .

On January 20, Luke Lucky Ngalngola, known as ‘Brother Angelo’, a Catholic priest who ran an orphanage on the outskirts of Jakarta, home to more than 40 children, was jailed for 14 years for sexually abusing the children under his care.

When the presiding judge, Ahmad Fadil, delivered his verdict, the 47-year-old priest referred to “contemptuous acts” and said that his behavior was particularly shocking to “a clergyman who should have set a good example and who should have known has. that his actions were contrary to religious doctrines ”.

While the judge imposed his sentence via video link due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ngalngola held his hands up in prayer.

“They feel invincible and hide behind their religion,” Sibarani said. “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 involving religious organizations or religious leaders in Indonesia are often handled internally for fear of embarrassing the organizations representing the leaders. will bring.

“My wish is that these kinds of cases are processed in a much more open way,” he said. “They must be treated transparently according to the law.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, dressed in a brown batik shirt, explains a point during a conversationLast year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed a new law allowing the chemical castration of those convicted of sexually assaulting children. The courts have not yet used the sentence [File: Willy Kurniawan/Reuters]

Members of the Christian community also agree that more needs to be done, and that religious organizations that speak out in public can help the authorities be less reluctant to make arrests and try cases.

“We support and appreciate the steps taken by the police and prosecutors to deal with the Benyamin Sitepu case in Medan and punish the perpetrator,” said Alex Ramandey, Deputy General Secretary of the Central Leadership Council of the Indonesian Christian Youth Movement (GAMKI). , told Al. Jazeera.

“Especially if the perpetrator is also a church figure who has embarrassed Christians.”

Ramandey adds that religious organizations should provide education to the parents of children under their care on how to recognize and report such cases and support those who are going through the legal process.

It is unclear how many cases of assault involving minors occur in Indonesia each year, 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 Vice President Edwin Partogi Pasaribu said 25 victims had experienced sexual violence in educational institutions.

“We need to respect people in line and their religious beliefs, but they also need to be judged by their actions,” Martono said.

“If people are going to break the law, they should not be religious leaders. We must not be ashamed in silence.

“Morally we all have a responsibility and we must acknowledge when these crimes happen and not cover them up.

“If we do not say anything, we are complicit.”

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