Parishioners attend Mass at St. Herkulanus Catholic Church in Depok, West Java. Police have charged a parish worker with abusing at least 20 altar boys. (Photo: Paroki Herkulanus)
A church worker in Indonesia has been charged with sexually abusing at least 20 altar boys in what is being touted as the first sexual abuse case involving the country’s Catholic Church to be prosecuted by state authorities.
The 42-year-old man, who was not named by police, is a liturgical coordinator at St. Herkulanus Catholic Parish in Bogor Diocese in Depok, West Java province.
He was arrested on June 14 following complaints from the alleged victims’ families and an investigation conducted by the parish and the diocese.
Many of the alleged victims were just 11 or 12 years old.
Azas Tigor Nainggolan, a lawyer for the families, said police and a church team were investigating to see if there were more victims.
"We suspect there are more than 20 victims given that he has worked for a long time as an acolyte assistant," he told UCA News on June 17.
The man is said to have been associating with altar boys in the parish since 2000 when he became a church volunteer. He was appointed as coordinator of the liturgical section in February this year.
According to Nainggolan, the abuse began in 2002 and only ended in March this year when the case came to light.
He said a parent of one of the victims discovered what was going on and reported it to church officials, including the bishops’ Commission for Justice, Peace and Migrant-Itinerant People.
Nainggolan said a team of priests, nuns and laypeople was formed to investigate the allegations, which the accused man initially denied. However, he admitted his actions when he was confronted by parents at a meeting mediated by the parish priest, he added.
The lawyer described the abuse as "terrible and barbaric."
“He chose certain children as targets. He abused them in various locations, including the parish library,” he said.
Nainggolan said the church’s actions showed it was committed to stopping such abuse.
Parish priest Father Yosep Sirilus Natet said his parish fully supported the move to go public and prosecute the case and had willingly provided information requested by the police.
"We cannot tolerate things that are against morality," he told UCA News. "We won't let anyone hide evil intentions behind church activities.”
He also assured that the parish would continue to provide counseling to the victims.
Father Franz Magnis Suseno, emeritus professor at the Jakarta-based Driyarkara School of Philosophy, said the case showed progress in the Church’s attitude towards reporting sexual abuse.
"Although this might make a lot of people feel ashamed, we must talk about the truth," he said, adding that this case was a warning to all parties.
"It’s time for the parish churches, clergy and Catholic associations to ensure that we protect children who come to us," he said.
Divine Word Father John Mansford Prior, a lecturer at the Catholic School of Philosophy in Maumere on the Catholic-majority island of Flores, did not share Father Suseno’s view on church progress.
Revealing a layman’s alleged sexual crimes cannot be seen as significant proof of the Church’s commitment to handling sexual abuse within its ranks, he claimed.
"The perpetrator is a layman. As far as I know, most abusers are ordained and consecrated people,” he told UCA News.
“I have never heard of any priest, brother or nun being reported to the police, examined or taken to court.
"Clericalism is still rampant and preserving the good name of the Church in an Islamic society is more important than justice for the victims whose mouths are often shut with money."