Despite recent high-profile cases of monastic child sex abuse, the organisers of a national conference for monks have left the issue off of the agenda, a move met with criticism yesterday by child protection advocates.
At a press conference to launch the 24th congress of Buddhist monks, held in Phnom Penh, no mention was made of the issue of child protection in pagodas, nor did the topic feature anywhere in a lengthy document outlining the agenda for the event – an omission one child protection official called “a missed opportunity”.
The congress follows hot on the heels of widely reported cases of sexual abuse, including the rape of nine boys by the head monk of a pagoda in Siem Reap last month, and the rape of a 14-year-old girl by a monk in Kratie province in September.
However, nine monks interviewed at the entrance to the congress yesterday said they had no knowledge of child sex abuse within the monkhood, and that they had not heard about the recent cases.
Asked if protecting children from sex abuse would feature during the conference, Ministry of Cults and Religion Deputy Secretary Seng Somony declined to answer directly. Instead, he said officials at the highest levels advised leaders in pagodas to educate and preach in order to prevent violence against children.
Observers, however, said the issue needed to be confronted head-on.“We are extremely disappointed this issue is not being addressed directly”, said Alistair Hilton, technical adviser to child sex abuse charity First Step.
“The message the organisers of the conference are sending out, by omitting this important issue from the agenda, is that the sexual abuse of boys in the care of the monkhood is not important.”
UNICEF’s chief of child protection, Bruce Grant, said the reaction of authorities to the Siem Reap case in particular illustrated a wider problem.
“The case of systematic abuse of children recently reported represents a significant failing of the child protection system,” he said.
“Although the alleged perpetrator was arrested and many leaders spoke out about how terrible the abuse was, there were still worrying gaps in the response.
The confidentiality of the alleged victim was not protected, little assistance was provided by government agencies and the care of the children was primarily left to NGOs.”
Meanwhile, the director of operations at the National Police’s Child Protection Unit, James McCabe, said he too was also concerned.
“It’s a missed opportunity at an important conference like this, where everyone is gathered, if the issue hasn’t been raised,” he said.
“We had the head monk in Siem Reap who raped nine boys in November, and currently we are investigating another 11 reports of rapes by an individual monk in Kampong Cham province.”
“If action is not taken in the near future, the authorities [responsible for pagodas] are failing to protect children,” he added.