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Indonesian Church goes public on an evil within

Sex abuse victim's courage leads to the country's first church-related case being prosecuted in court

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Indonesian Church goes public on an evil within

Altar boys and girls assist during an Easter celebration at St. Herkulanus Parish Church in Bogor Diocese. A church worker in the parish has been arrested for allegedly molesting altar boys. (Photo: Paroki Herkulanus)

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It took many years for Yohanes — not his real name — to pluck up enough courage to reveal he had been sexually abused.

He says he was first attacked in 2008 while serving as a 12-year-old altar boy at St. Herkulanus Parish Church in Depok in Indonesia's West Java province.

It happened after his fellow altar boys had returned home from spending time with their spiritual mentor, Syharil Marbun, who then allegedly took him to a secluded place and assaulted him.

He says he was too scared to report it because the perpetrator was an acolyte trainer and highly respected in the parish. "I didn't even tell my parents," he told UCA News.

The fact that his parents were also close to the alleged perpetrator also made it hard for him to reveal what happened,” according to Yohanes, who is now 24 years old and works in Jakarta.

He says he felt if he kept his distance from Marbun nothing would happen again, but he claims it did five years later in 2013 when he was 17.

He claims Marbun attacked him again after luring him to his house after an event they had attended with his parents.

“At the time, I thought he would not bother me as I was older and a long time had passed without incident, but it happened again,” he says. "I felt broken, depressed and dirty. My relationship with God was also broken.”

Feeling ashamed, he continued to build walls between himself and his parents and friends. However, things started to change on May 30 when he received an unexpected call from a friend inviting him to attend a parish meeting.

At the meeting, attended by other former altar boys, he was asked directly whether he had been sexually abused by Marbun. He was shocked to learn that many of the others at the meeting were also victims.

The fact that others were prepared to speak about their experiences encouraged him to do the same.

He says he felt guilty about not speaking out earlier about what had happened, which could have prevented further crimes.

"I didn’t believe there would be other victims," he says, adding the revelation made him determined to help the parish team and lawyers investigate all the claims further.

"I felt a change in me after dismissing my fears. Now I feel free,” he says.

On June 6, during a meeting in which the victims' parents, the parish priest and lawyers confronted Marbun, Yohanes’ testimony was pivotal.

Marbun, who initially denied the allegations, saying his acts of affection were misunderstood, finally confessed after Yohanes explained his experiences in detail.

“He could not deny it anymore,” Yohanes said. Marbun allegedly wrote down 13 names of other children he had abused. It is believed Marbun may have abused and raped at least 21 boys.

Yohanes is now actively involved in tracking down other victims. "I feel some are thinking like I did and are reluctant to speak. Many victims have turned to drugs to blot out the trauma,” he says.

Positive sign

The case is the first case of sexual abuse in the Indonesian Church to be prosecuted by state authorities. Previous crimes were kept quiet or settled privately to avoid bringing shame on the Church as well as the victims, observers say.  

Father Yosep Sirilus Natet, the parish priest of St. Herkulanus Church, which comes under Bogor Diocese, said the parish fully backs the alleged victims and the police in investigating the case.

Azas Tigor Nainggolan, a lawyer representing the victims, told UCA News that this case could open the lid on other such cases.

Since this case came to light, he has received word of other alleged abuses committed by church workers and religious people. He did not say whether any accusations were being made against clerics.

"They need to be investigated further," said Nainggolan, who is also working with the bishops’ Commission for Justice, Peace, and Migrant-Itinerant People.

He said sexual abuse has long been a problem but no one dared speak up. Many Catholics have even criticized efforts to pursue such cases through the courts.

Nainggolan said many church people consider such cases as disgracing the Church, so should not be made public.

"But I feel the perpetrators, whoever they are, are criminals who must be prosecuted," he said.

Inspired by Pope Francis

Yohanes hopes the case against Marbun will be the starting point for renewal in the Indonesian Church. "I’m pursuing this because I want to see drastic change on this issue within the Catholic Church,” he said.

He admitted feeling strengthened after reading about Pope Francis' commitment to ending sexual abuse in the Church, including abolishing the rule of "pontifical secrecy" that allowed it to be covered up.

"I feel what we are doing is carrying out the Holy Father’s will,” he said. “It also means that there is no more reason for the Church to cover such things up. It’s time for victims to speak out.”

Yohanes also called on the Church and parents to listen to children more closely.

“When I first told my parents about the abuse, their response amazed me. My parents cried and pledged full support in seeking legal action,” he said.

His parents, he said, had forgiven his abuser, which he said he might do in time. “But for now, I want him to face justice so that there are no more victims.”

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