Sitting on a bamboo mat inside the quiet Mony Rong Ko pagoda, 70-year-old Kean Sek yesterday was still trying to come to grips with the accusation that has rocked his community – that a once widely trusted abbot, Vong Chet, had raped at least nine of the boys in his care.
“I could not believe he would do such a disgusting thing to those boys,” Sek, now tasked with the pagoda’s upkeep, said. “He was so kind and calm . . . I was so shocked to hear his confession.”
Sek described the Kralanh district pagoda’s former chief as a kindly middle-aged man no one suspected of doing harm.
The image stands in stark contrast to the one known by the alleged victims in the case, who still live in fear of the man who stands accused of raping at least nine novices between the ages of 9 and 16 during a five-month period.
Police said Chet, 46, threatened to “punish” his victims should they inform their parents, while Chet himself confessed to paying the children under his care between 30,000 to 100,000 riel (about $7.50 to $25) to have sex with them.
In an interview yesterday, the mother of one of the alleged victims expressed her deep feelings of betrayal.
“He earned our family’s trust . . . He acted like he was a kind person, bringing things over for my son, and telling me that he loved my son as if he was his.”
Her son, 11, was raped 18 times by Chet, she said.
“I feel so hurt and angry, because I never thought the chief monk could do this to my son,” she said, standing in front of her home, a stilt house surrounded by rice fields just a kilometre away from the pagoda.
The abuse may have continued had it not been for one 16-year-old novice who broke the silence.
The boy, who moved into the pagoda in early November, said Chet raped him while he was asleep about a week into his stay.
“I shouted for help and tried to get out of his arms, but it was useless, as he was so strong,” he said. “The next morning, it felt so painful, and I decided to call my parents, and then my relatives reported it to the police.”
The boy said that the novices remain terrified of the monk, even though he is in provincial jail and faces a lengthy prison sentence for buying child sex and having sex with a minor.
“Before, we slept in our own rooms [in the pagoda], but now we all sleep in one room, because we are afraid that he will come back and hurt us,” said the novice.
There are now fears the monk’s alleged abuse has wrought havoc on other communities in the past places of worship he worked in.
According to Duong Thavary, head of Siem Reap’s anti-human trafficking police, Chet worked in three other pagodas during his time as a monk. Authorities will now investigate all three.
By Chet’s own account, he first worked at the Ta Kea pagoda in Siem Reap’s Puok district for one year, then for two years at the Wat Keo pagoda in Battambang’s Ek Phnom district, and then another two years at the Tranap Russei pagoda in Kampot’s Chhouk district, said Thavary.
But even if they only consider the case in Kralanh, provincial officials said they remain shocked at the scale of the alleged abuse.
“This has never happened before; it’s the first case for Siem Reap,” said Chea Heng, deputy chief of Siem Reap’s Provincial Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Unit.
Authorities are now saying the case has spurred them to pay more attention to the poorly policed rural pagodas.
“We, the authorities, have to pay more attention to all pagodas in our area and encourage villages and parents to cooperate with local police if they think anything unusual is going on,” said Chheun Chean, Kralanh district governor.
“The abbot has affected the religion and condition of the young novices, and the law will find justice for them.”