Save kids from ‘cult’ in Surigao, gov’t urged
MANILA, Philippines —A group of child rights advocates on Wednesday urged the government to immediately act on alleged crimes committed against children by the group Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI), a group in Surigao del Norte province exposed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros as a supposed cult.
Child Rights Network convenor Romeo Dongeto stressed the need for the social welfare and education departments to participate in a multi-agency coordination effort to probe the “horrifying allegations.”
“Each day that passes means children may continue to suffer rape, loss of freedom and education, and even forced marriages. Children deserve to enjoy their childhood. They belong in schools, not in the clutches of an alleged ‘cult,’” Dongeto said in a statement.
In a privilege speech on Sept. 18, Hontiveros revealed the harrowing experiences of the children in Socorro, Surigao del Norte, who were allegedly raped and forced into marriage under the group, which is also known as “Kapihan.” The group has 3,650 members, including 1,587 minors.
Following the revelation, Department of Justice spokesperson Mico Clavano said the National Bureau of Investigation recommended in June the filing of complaints against several people from the group, including its leader, Jey Rence Quilario, who claims to be a godly reincarnation known as “Senior (or Señor) Agila.”
SBSI is facing allegations including child sex trafficking, preventing members from access to education and health care, and forcibly taking social welfare benefits from them. Quilario is also accused of involvement in sexual activities with minors.
Catholic priests ministering over Socorro have confirmed reports of sexual abuse and forced marriages of children, among other exploitative acts, within SBSI.In a statement, the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Socorro led by Augustinian priests strongly disowned the group.
“As friar-priests living in the municipality itself, we can attest that the people of Socorro have common knowledge of these abuses being done in the hilltop settlement,” read the parish statement dated Sept. 23 but released on Sept. 27.
The priests said the stories shared by a number of former Kapihan members about their ordeals described the same kind of abuses.
“When we heard of the accounts of marrying minors with adults, incidents when already married individuals were made to marry another partner under the authority of Señor Agila, exploitation and forced labor of their followers, child sexual abuses and many others, our hearts felt such strong feeling of pity for the victims,” they said.
“Whether these abuses remain to be allegations of inhumane acts or should they be proven true, we strongly condemn such acts of injustice towards our brothers and sisters,” the priests added.
Running out of time
SBSI reportedly expressed its intention to build its own private school in the community but according to Assistant Education Secretary Francis Cesar Bringas, it has yet to file an application with the regional office of the Department of Education.
Dongeto, also the executive director of the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development, echoed lawmakers’ sentiments that the group might be exploiting members “in the most heinous way imaginable.”
“Time is not a luxury we have … We need immediate and decisive multi-agency action. One child is one too many. These children can’t wait, and neither should we,” he said.
According to him, the government could prosecute the group’s leaders for gross violation of several child protection laws, such as Raising the Age of Sexual Consent Law (Republic Act No. 11648), Prohibition of Child Marriage Law (RA 11596), Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act (RA 9208), Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act (RA 11862), and Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation, and Discrimination Act (RA 7610).“We do not want a situation where national attention will dwindle and people forget that we are dealing with potential grave violations committed against children,” Dongeto said.
“This is a time to use the full range of legislation available because we have enough laws to cover all the alleged crimes committed by this group,” he added. According to the Catholic parish in Socorro, Kapihan is among the groups having the biggest following on the island of Bucas Grande, with its membership far outnumbering Catholics, which comprise only about 20 percent of the island’s population of about 26,000 as of the 2020 Census.
The priests said Kapihan’s followers came from diverse backgrounds and professions, such as educators, government employees, tricycle drivers, farmers and fishermen, who had all given up their jobs or properties to join the settlement.
“Many of these people could not easily return to their former way of life [since] they have nothing to go back to—no home, no work, and sometimes, no family,” the Catholic parish said.