A file image of Muslim children in traditional Islamic outfits listen a band singing religious music during a ceremony at a mosque in Jakarta. (Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP Photo)
In late May, halfway through the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a 24-year-old ustaz, or teacher, stole into a dormitory for female students in Indonesia's Riau province and raped 16-year-old Wati (not her real name).
"She was raped in a room for female students after sahur," her mother told ucanews.com during an interview on June 7, referring to the pre-dawn meal Muslims eat before fasting from dawn till dusk during Ramadan.
The teenager was studying at the Nahdatul Wahtan Islamic boarding school in Bangun Rejo village. The perpetrator, identified as a teacher called Saleh, was arrested by local police on June 1.
According to Anjar Pratama Putra, the local police chief, he "went into the victim's room and immediately stripped off her underwear and raped her."
Cases of sexual violence involving religious teachers are not new in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country that is dominated by a patriarchal culture where women are still regarded as second-class citizens.
Retno Listyarti, education commissioner for the government-run National Commission for Child Protection, said religious schools are no longer considered safe havens for children.
Last year, she said, they recorded 2,298 cases of sexual violence, some of which occurred on school grounds at the hands of clerics.
She cited a disturbing case in May 2017 where a teacher in Purwokerto, a town in Banyumas district on the island of Java, was found to have raped five students, all under the age of 10.
"He carried out those crimes in a mosque," Listyarti said.
Other cases have been reported this year involving both male and female victims.
In January, for example, in Tangerang of Banten province, a 49-year-old cleric was found to have sexually abused up to 41 boys, while another case in Surabaya, East Java, saw one teacher guilty of molesting 65 students.
Tip of the iceberg
Lystiarti said the number of unreported cases is believed to be much higher.
"Many people are reluctant to report cases of abuse as the perpetrators are often religious leaders who wield a great deal of influence in society," she said, adding that few dare take such cases to court.
Ahmad Safrudin, a 25-year-old pancake vendor in Jakarta, told ucanews.com that four years ago his niece Ana was sexually molested by her religious teacher in Boyolali, Central Java, when she was just 14.
The family didn't learn about the incident until three months later when they noticed some worrying changes in her behavior.
Ana's father died when she was young and her mother remarried, after which she went to live with her grandparents.
"The teacher [a married man] tried to rape her but fortunately he was interrupted as a group of people arrived at his house at around that time," he said.
"We couldn't report him to the police due to insufficient evidence."
Listyarti said the teachers are known to use a range of tactics from coercion to persuading the victim they have supernatural powers.
"They take advantage of the helplessness and ignorance of their students," she said.
Safrudin said even though his niece was only the victim of an attempted rape, she remains heavily traumatized.
"She became very quiet and withdrawn, not socializing much with her family or friends," he said. "Of course the impact on those children who are raped must be even worse."
The girl is now 18 but she is still afraid to go out by herself or to be alone with males, he added.
Meanwhile, Wati's mother said her daughter breaks down a lot and has lost interest in studying.
Psychologist Seto Mulyadi said the scars can run deep and permanently alienate the victims from their religion.
Cases have been reported at Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and secular institutions where groups of minors are left in the care of trusted adults. "It's certainly not only related to Islamic schools," Mulyadi said.
Cases of sexual abuse involving clergy and minors are high on the radar at Catholic institutes and Pope Francis continues to pressure bishops around the world to be more transparent in their handling of such cases.
In recent years, Indonesia has begun paying more attention to this scourge and applied heavier penalties.
Over 18 months later, the law has been approved but not yet implemented pending agreement on the specific rules of conduct.
Women Empowerment and Child Protection Minister Yohana Yembise said recently this will be resolved shortly and the law put into effect.
Safrudin said those who commit rape deserve to be severely punished because they destroy people's lives.
Wati's mother said she trusted the court to deliver a fair ruling and make the school a safer place for those who attend classes there.
"If our children are not safe at religious schools, where else can they study?" she asked.
This article was first published 13.6.2018.