Religious leaders’ role in anti-paedophilia fight

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PETALING JAYA: Paul Pakianathan is no stranger to cases of sexual abuse involving children, having rescued a victim himself.

He told FMT the young girl he rescued was sexually abused by her own brother. Her mother knew about it, but did nothing for several years.

Pakianathan, a senior pastor at the Community of Praise, said the case came to his knowledge when the mother took the girl to his church for a separate matter but his instinct told him that something was not right with the girl, who at the time was in her early teenage years.

“I decided there and then I must speak to her and find out what was going on,” he said. “And that was what I did. Soon after, she opened up to me and spoke of the sexual abuse she was facing.

“She wanted it to stop, but was reluctant to lodge a report. I insisted, and once she agreed I took her to the hospital, helped her lodge a police report and went to court to get custody of her.

“She has been living with me for over a year now.”

But the case the pastor encountered is not unique. Last year, paediatrician Zahilah Filzah Zulkifli told FMT that nine out of every ten cases of child sexual abuse went unreported.

Zahilah was the head of the Scan (Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect) team in a government hospital in the Klang Valley.

According to activist Syed Azmi Alhabshi, this was one of the reasons why it was so important for religious leaders to join in the battle against child sexual abuse.

“They are close to the community and are the best authorities to advocate the importance of protecting and keeping children safe,” he said.

Pakianathan agreed. He said religious leaders had an important role to play in helping children fight abuse inflicted on them.

To do this, he added, religious leaders have to create an environment where the children and those close to them feel comfortable and safe enough to talk about the taboo topic that is sex.

“If everybody makes an effort to talk about it openly, it can create awareness and people will be more cautious over their surroundings and those in their care,” he said.

“Religious leaders must make their community feel comfortable. When I talk to my congregation, I try to put them in a situation where they will not be afraid or feel shy to come up and talk to me, even about sex.”

The first step to achieving this, he added, would be to get topics about sex and sexual abuse “out of the taboo list”.

Syed Azmi supported the idea. He said religious authorities, by virtue of the large platform available to them, needed to work with organisations and experts that were already working hard to push for better child protection.

“What I want from the authorities is for them to start talking more about child sexual abuse,” he said. “But before they do that, they need to get themselves educated. We don’t want them to talk about it blindly, but with knowledge. Then they can link whatever they have learned to the relevant religious verses that will make their statements religiously inclined too.”

Syed Azmi said he had spoken to some religious authorities to get them to join him and relevant NGOs to find solutions for the widespread problem. So far their responses have been positive, he added.

Malacca Muslim Welfare Organisation (Perkim) assistant secretary Zainal Mohamed expressed a similar sentiment, saying it was high time for state religious departments to educate the public on the topic of child sexual abuse.

He acknowledged that such education programmes were already being held but he said these were conducted on a small scale and only in certain areas. “And they don’t cover the topic comprehensively. In fact, not many people actually show up.

“This programmes, on the state level, should be organised once a month, and it should be made compulsory for parents and their children to attend.”

According to classified data the police shared with international news agency Reuters last year, 12,987 cases of child sexual abuse were reported between January 2012 and July 2016. Out of this number, 2,189 charges were filed, resulting in 140 convictions.

The topic of child sexual abuse was often kept under wraps until news about convicted paedophile Richard Huckle broke out.

Huckle is a Briton who was accused of sexually abusing more than 200 Malaysian children from the poor parts of Kuala Lumpur. Last year, a British court sentenced him to 22 life terms for these offences.