A parish church tried to hide a series of sexual assaults, but as more victims come forward, investigators begin to view the case as a Pandora’s box.
"I thought church was a safe place. But it is not," said Azas Tigor Nainggolan, an Indonesian lawyer, recalling the words spoken to him by one of his clients.
In late June, Michael — not his real name — told Nainggolan that his son had been sexually assaulted at St Herkulanus church in West Java, Indonesia. His son had been enrolled in the church as an altar boy, a priest's assistant during a service - they are most prevalent in Roman Catholic Church services.
St Herkulanus church was already in the news for a host of negative reasons. In February this year, it briefly came under the media spotlight as a sexual assault case concerning a minor surfaced. It involved one of the church's functionaries. The story quickly evaporated as the pandemic hit the country in March.
But two months later, in May, a member of the victim's family decided to seek out Nainggolan for legal help.
Nainggolan is a seasoned lawyer, an expert in dealing with cases of sexual assault and violence. He heads a legal aid body, Forum Warga Kota Jakarta, and is a board member of the human rights advocacy group, Konferensi Waligereja Indonesia (Bishops' Conference in Indonesia).
Nianggolan suspected that the scope of the case could be bigger, with more than one boy being assaulted within the church.
With the help of other priests and nuns of the Herkulanus church and Suffragan Diocese of Bogor, he handpicked a team and launched an extensive probe.
On May 24, two more victims of sexual assault came forward. All the victims picked out the same man, Syahril Parlindungan Marbun, a 42 year old lawyer who had been managing altar boys and girls over 18 years.
On June 6, a Nainggolan-led team of investigators called for a meeting between the victims' parents and the accused, Syahril.
In the first half of the meeting, Syahril denied all the accusations. But the truth was not absent for long, for the unexpected appearance of a man, once one of his altar boys, appeared to change things. Syahril eventually stopped deflecting the charges being brought against him and admitted assaulting the man when he was in his teenage years.
He then went on to list the names of eleven teenagers who had received the same treatment by him.
Despite this, Nainggolan was not completely convinced, and felt there was more to the story.
“I have experienced investigating many cases like this. I think there are more victims,” Nainggolan told TRT World.
He continued to probe, and a few weeks later, more altar boys came forward with their own harrowing tales. They had also been assaulted by Syahril. The number of victims doubled to 21.
Nainggolan's team found that the first assault had occurred in 2002 and the most recent that brought to his knowledge had taken place in March of this year.
Syahril had himself been an altar boy. He was a hero in the eyes of priests and nuns, and he took pride in his years of service to the church.
Some members of the congregation expressed a will to have the case remain private and within the church walls.
But, head priest of the parish, Father Yosep Sirilus Natet, who only took on the role earlier this year, refused. He asked the victims to file police complaints.
Father Natet was the one who had promoted Syahril to be the leader of liturgy commission in the parish - this, of course, before any sexual assault allegations had surfaced.
On June 14, the police arrested Syahril at his home. The resulting police investigation found evidence, including a victim’s t-shirt that carried a semen stain.
“For a while there are just two who have pressed charges against him,” said Chief of Depok Police Senior Commissioner Azis Andriansyah.
During an interrogation, Syahril said that as a child, he had also been a victim of numerous sexual assaults inside the church.
The police found that Syahril had molested all the victims in one particular location — the church's library. He was a librarian, and was able to give himself access to all of its sections.
“Most of the victims were between 10-11 years of age at the time of the assault,” said Nainggolan, the lawyer.
Nainggolan said that Syahril was often spotted hugging and kissing the boys during the congregations, and making them sit on his lap.
The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) has joined the investigation. “When we received the complaint, we started a team to investigate,” Komnas HAM’s commissioner Choirul Anam told TRT World.
The series of sexual assaults at the St Herkulanus parish, has been damaging to the reputation of the Roman Catholic church, as many perceive the case as 'the tip of the iceberg.'
On December 8 last year, a Roman Catholic media outlet, Warta Minggu (Sunday News), reported that Father Joseph Kristanto, a Secretary of Seminary Commissioner for Bishops' Conference in Indonesia, had set up a team to investigate sexual assault in other churches. His team claimed to have found dozens of sexual assault victims.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are 37 dioceses. If we find 5 or 10 cases in each diocese, you can figure out the real number,” said Joseph to Warta Minggu.
Nainggolan and his team continue to search for information because they strongly believe there are others who have suffered the same fate, but remain silent for now.
“We will not let the victims become future sex perpetrators,” said Nainggolan.