Holy sin: child abuse in Cambodia’s Buddhist pagodas

By: David Hutt - Posted on: February 5, 2016 | Cambodia

Recent cases of monks committing child abuse have focused attention on the response from authorities and the Buddhist hierarchy

“I lived at the pagoda. There was a monk who mistreated me,” a young boy told Alastair Hilton in his 2008 study, I Thought It Could Never Happen To Boys. The child said he was made to perform sex acts and even forced to eat excrement. “I didn’t dare tell anyone. I didn’t want everybody to know. I was so ashamed that someone had mistreated me.”

monks, sexual abuse, buddhism, cambodia
Shadows of Cambodian Buddhist monks in Phnom Penh last year. Photo: Mak Remissa/EPA

In recent months, a number of cases of monks sexually abusing children have been reported by Cambodia’s English-language media. In September, a 20-year-old monk in Kratie province was arrested for allegedly raping a 14-year-old girl. In November, a chief monk of a rural pagoda in Siem Reap province admitted to raping ten boys. And, in January, an elderly monk – who had been ordained for just one month – confessed to raping two young girls in Battambang province.

“One in 20 boys and girls in Cambodia experience some form of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday,” said Bruce Grant, chief of child protection at Unicef Cambodia. “Evidence world-wide clearly shows that children separated from their families and living in residential care institutions and religious institutions are at increased risk of violence and abuse.”

It is estimated that 95% of Cambodia’s 15 million residents are Theravada Buddhists. The country’s pagodas offer many children – overwhelmingly boys – temporary residence and an education that poorer, provincial Cambodians cannot often afford.

Despite the recent string of high-profile cases, the issue of child abuse was not broached at the 24th congress of Buddhist monks, held in Phnom Penh in December, to the dismay of many child protection advocates.

“Whenever an institution is aware of the problem of child sex abuse and fails to take swift and substantive action to address the matter, a clear opportunity to protect children has been missed and the institution’s reputation damaged,” said Mike Nowlin, deputy country director of Hagar Cambodia.

Min Khin, the minister of cults and religions, told Southeast Asia Globe he was too busy to comment, while Phlok Phan, a secretary of state for the same ministry, said he knew of the cases but would prefer another official to comment on the issue.

For Alastair Hilton, a technical advisor at First Step Cambodia, an NGO that specialises in supporting male victims of sexual abuse, the fact that child abuse was not mentioned at the congress was most likely caused by “their complete lack of knowledge or awareness of the issue”.

“One in 20 boys and girls in Cambodia experience some form of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday”

He added that it was important not to jump to conclusions about sexual abuse in pagodas. “There is a tendency to make the comparisons between what happens in [Cambodia’s] Buddhist pagodas and what happened in Catholic churches,” he said, referring to the uncovering of systematic and institutional sexual abuse of young boys by Catholic priests in Europe, North America and elsewhere.

The Phnom Penh Post quoted James McCabe, head of the Child Protection Unit in Cambodia, as saying that ‘Buddhism in Cambodia was facing a similar challenge’ to the Catholic church in Europe and that, possibly, it has much to do with the celibate life monks are expected to lead.

Hilton disagrees, saying there is no evidence of an institutional cover-up in the vein of the Catholic Church. “Anywhere you have people in charge of children, without adequate child protection policies, children are at risk… we need to understand more about the complex dynamics at play and should be wary of drawing comparisons in the absence of local and specific knowledge,” he added.

Nevertheless, Hilton believes that if a retrospective study asked men who lived in pagodas as children whether sexual abuse took place, the findings would be startling, while Nowlin said an “increasing number of survivors are [likely to] come forward in the years ahead”.

According to Hilton, the issue is not strictly related to pagodas and Buddhist monks. “There is a huge need across all of Cambodian society to actually focus on this issue of sexual abuse against children. It’s a problem of awareness, understanding and not asking the right questions,” he said.

Amongst Cambodia’s NGOs and authorities, there does appear to be a lack of awareness. For example, Naly Pilorge, director of the human rights NGO Licadho, which has a ‘children’s rights monitoring and advocacy’ program, said in an email: “We are not really specialised in abuses committed on children by religious leaders”, adding that she was “not even sure” who to refer Southeast Asia Globe to for questions on the matter.

Grant said that despite the arrest of the alleged perpetrator in the Siem Reap case, there were “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,” he said. “The Ministry of Cults and Religion with the support of Unicef and Social Services Cambodia is developing a child protection curriculum for integration into all three levels of the Buddhist education system.”

According to Jarrett Davis, an independent research consultant who has studied sexual abuse in Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines, the number of child abuse cases is exacerbated by a “lack of vigilance”. “People don’t expect to find it amongst religious leaders, because that would be very shameful, so people don’t look for it there,” he said, adding that this is further aggravated because the vast majority of children who reside in pagodas are male.

In November, Southeast Asia Globe reported on the alarmingly high numbers of boys who had been sexually abused in Cambodia and the assertion that when boys are sexually abused, the issue is taken less seriously than when it happens to girls.

Hilton said that First Step Cambodia is assisting some of the boys who were abused by the monk in Siem Reap. “They’d never heard about [male] abuse before, nor had most of the adults around them. It was a complete shock; they never thought it could happen to boys,” he said.

According to Nowlin, increased media attention and research on the sexual abuse of children has “helped improve public awareness, which ultimately leads to higher reporting rates by survivors” and that Buddhist authorities now have an opportunity to take a lead in improving this.

“By acknowledging that there have been some issues, and subsequently making a strong action plan to partner with their local communities to promote safety, children will greatly benefit,” he said. “Such transparency and accountability will be highly valued and respected in the community and, ultimately, lead to fewer victims of child sexual abuse.”