Church denies barring parents from children, and threatens to sue filmmaker
THE leaders of a church that operates a shelter in Phnom Penh are planning to sue an Australian filmmaker for defamation unless he publicly retracts allegations that children in their care have been “essentially abducted”.
The filmmaker, James Ricketson, is producing a documentary on the life of a 22-year-old who says that the SHE Rescue Home – run by Citipointe Church, which is based in Brisbane, Australia – has assumed full custody of her children illegally. Ricketson most recently aired the allegations in a June 4 interview with the Australian film magazine Encore.
Brian Mulheran, a pastor at Citipointe Church, said by email that the church was preparing to take legal action against Ricketson because the allegations were threatening its work and the safety of its charges.
“After showing grace to Mr Ricketson over the last few years it has reached a point where we are now required to protect the main purpose of our organisation – to protect the lives of the innocent Cambodian children in our care,” he said.
A lawyer for the church, Simon Fisher, said Wednesday that Ricketson would be given the opportunity to retract the allegations publicly this week.
If he fails to do so, Fisher said he would file complaints against him in Cambodian and Australian courts and seek an injunction against the release of the film.
The subject of the film – who first met Ricketson when she was a 7-year-old child beggar – said in an interview last month that she voluntarily transferred her children into the care of the SHE Rescue Home in July 2008. At the time, she was living along the riverfront on Sisowath Quay, and did not want her children rounded up in street sweeps by local police, she said.
The woman – whose name is being withheld to protect the identities of her children, ages 5 and 8 – said she was then informed that she would only be able to visit them for two hours every two weeks until they turned 18.
“I was surprised that I could not take my children out of the home to stay with me when I wanted to. I was not aware of that,” she said.
Four other families or single parents – all of them acquaintances of the 22-year-old – said they, too, had seen their visitation rights restricted after they transferred their young children into the care of the SHE Rescue Home.
A project agreement signed in November 2009 by Citipointe and the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation says the shelter can hold up to 17 children.
Pastor Mulheran declined to comment on specific complaints against the shelter, but said access to children was never restricted.
The agreement stipulates that Citipointe is to run a shelter for victims of sexual trafficking, and to give them access to counselling and health services.
Khuon Ranin, an undersecretary of state at the Social Affairs Ministry, said in a letter that Citipointe is also required to “work towards family and Khmer culture reintegration”.
Though he didn’t comment on allegations of wrongdoing at the SHE Rescue Home, he said, “The ministry has programmes to inspect projects and locations of NGOs, and when mistakes are found, the ministry will take legal action”.
Ricketson said he had become convinced that the church was operating illegally, in part because it began assuming custody of children before the agreement was signed.
Steve Morrish, director of the anti-trafficking organisation South East Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities (SISHA), said the shelter should not have assumed custody of any children before signing an agreement with the government. “If they go to poor families and they’re not involving the government or the police and the family complains, they’ve got some problems,” he said.
For his part, Ricketson said he had no plans to retract his statements. “If Citipointe wishes to sue me, so be it,” he said.