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A shock to the system

Indonesian Church pledges better child protection amid a sex abuse scandal involving 23 altar boys

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A shock to the system

Altar boys and girls assist during Holy Week celebrations at St. Herkulanus Parish in Depok in West Java, Indonesia. (Photo: St. Herkulanus Parish)

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Lukas says his initial reaction was one of rage when he found out his only son had been sexually abused. He says his heart was broken and he did not know who to blame.

He now realizes why his once cheerful son, who willingly became an altar boy soon after receiving his First Communion in 2018, is now withdrawn and quiet. 

"You never think this could happen to your child,” said the 53-year-old, speaking about his 12-year-old son who was among 23 altar boys allegedly molested by former acolyte trainer Syharil Marbun in St. Herkulanus Parish in Depok, West Java.

He says his son was raped seven times by Marbun within the church compound.

Lukas was among several parents who went to police to demand that Marbun face the full force of the law instead of settling the matter quietly as was done in the past so as not to “tarnish the church’s reputation”.

Marbun was arrested on June 14 and faces a lengthy prison term if found guilty of his alleged crimes.

As a result of what is the first case of sexual abuse in the Indonesian Church to be prosecuted by state authorities, church groups have vowed to learn from past mistakes and to make church institutions, including parishes, a safe place for children.

Bishop Paskalis Bruno Syukur of Bogor says the scandal was shocking but also provides a valuable lesson. He says it forced the Church to come up with measures to protect children under its care.

The prelate said a team is drafting a child protection manual that will be implemented in church institutions and parishes in the diocese. "We are working with psychologists, legal experts, and nuns,” he told UCA News.

The bishop, who is also deputy chairman of the Indonesian Bishops' Conference, said in drafting the guidelines they are using many sources including Vademecuma document released by the Vatican on July 16 that contains procedures to adopt in handling sexual abuse claims.

The document, among other things, urges bishops to report sexual abuse against minors committed within the Church to civil authorities. 

The altar boy scandal at St. Herkulanus has also alarmed Catholic educators.

Franciscan Father Vinsensius Darmin Mbula, chairman of the National Council of Catholic Education, said his organization is developing a protocol in handling child sexual abuse cases to be implemented in Catholic schools nationwide.

He said the St. Herkulanus case has cast all eyes firmly on the Catholic Church, with people asking what is being done to prevent it from happening again.

“Hopefully, what we are doing will answer such questions,” Father Mbula said. 

The document they are preparing will set up boundaries between school staff and students.

“It will also outline what the school should do with sexual abuse claims, including reporting them to the authorities,” he said. "Our goal is that it will be part of the school code of conduct. We want to reassure the public that Catholic schools are safe places for their children." 

Father Joseph Kristanto, executive secretary of the bishops’ Commission for Seminaries, says he and the commission have been looking at the issue of sexual abuse within the Church more closely since 2017. It has published a book titled The Catholic Church's Professional Ministry and Abuse of Power.

He said a group called the Joint Body of Ongoing Priestly Formation in Indonesia has also finished drawing up special guidelines on child protection and was waiting for approval from the bishops before publishing them.

"It is hoped that dioceses, foundations, orphanages, schools, including seminaries and parishes, will also introduce their own protocols,” he said.

Father Yosep Sirilus Natet, the St. Herkulanus parish priest, acknowledged the importance of creating child-friendly parishes and his team is also working to try and prevent such a shocking case from happening again. 

He said the abuse in his parish might have been discovered earlier had there been CCTV cameras at the church, including the parish library where many of the altar boys — including Lukas’ 12-years old son — were attacked.

Besides coming up with child protection protocols, he says it is also important to raise awareness that combating sexual abuse is a collective task.

Father Natet said the parish has organized a special novena calling for the intervention of the Infant Jesus of Prague for the altar boys. “It is one of many ways to involve parishioners in addressing this problem,” he said.

Lukas and other parents of abused children agree that involving all parishioners will have a bigger impact in the fight against the sexual abuse of children, not only within the Church but elsewhere too.

When everyone understands the impact sexual abuse has on victims, it will motivate people more to stop it, they said.

Lukas said he felt very disappointed when a member of the parish council confronted him and demanded they settle the case involving Marbun through mediation instead of reporting it to the police.

"This is certainly a problem because some church officials do not see child abuse as something that must be eradicated this way," he said. “However, the Church must always side with the victims.”

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