Up to seven foreign clergymen are serving time in Cambodian prisons for child sex crimes, according to the executive director of a child protection NGO, a situation highlighted by the arrest of a Dutch priest who was charged last week with producing child pornography.
Evrard-Nicolas Sarot, 53, who was a parish priest in the Netherlands, is accused of paying 19 boys, all under the age of 15, a few dollars each to pose nude for photographs in Siem Reap City.
Another four victims have been identified since the 19 were interviewed by police last week, and other unidentified victims could have been photographed in the Philippines, where Mr. Sarot may also have worked as a priest, Samleang Seila, head of Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), said on Tuesday.
Police said Mr. Sarot was found to have nearly 1,300 images on his camera and 3,715 more on a laptop.
The church in the Netherlands has also since admitted that they knew of the priest’s “sexual preference for young boys.”
On Tuesday, Chhay Haklong, deputy chief of the Siem Reap provincial police’s anti-human trafficking unit, said police investigations into Mr. Sarot had officially concluded and the prosecution was preparing its case.
APLE is continuing to investigate the background of Mr. Sarot, who was also said to have worked as a primary school teacher before joining the priesthood in the Netherlands, where he became the parish priest of the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands in Culemborg from 2004 to 2013.
“What we could establish was that he was involved in church services in the Philippines,” Mr. Seila said. “We are investigating wherever he used to work as part of his profession in relation to children.”
Liz van Velzen, a spokeswoman for Dutch anti-child exploitation NGO Terre des Hommes, on Tuesday said Mr. Sarot visited the Philippines at least twice as part of the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands’ connection to the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, or the Philippine Independent Church.
Mr. Seila said reports of child sex abuse by foreign clergymen—or at the very least, men claiming to be clergymen—had only started to surface recently.
“It was getting more common in the last five years. Roughly about six to seven priests are in prison for convictions related to child sex crimes,” he said, including four to five who were Christian pastors. “We will pay more attention, definitely,” he added.
A South Korean pastor currently awaiting trial is accused of sexually abusing eight girls on multiple occasions over the past several years and buying them and their families off with gifts of rice, cash and motorbikes. Park Youl, 62, was arrested in October in Siem Reap City, where some of the victims had been living with him at his Christian church.
In 2013, 67-year-old Charles Manning, a U.S. man who founded the Victory Baptist Church in Sihanoukville, where he taught Bible studies and English, was convicted of “indecent acts” against minors under the age of 15.
Maggie Eno, co-founder and director of the Sihanoukville-based child protection organization M’Lop Tapang, said child abusers using the church or religion to access children was similar to the trend of abusers setting up or joining child welfare NGOs in the country in order to do the same thing.
“They’re in a position of respect. They’re a religious leader, someone who…forms trust in the community,” she said. “They’re in a key position for people to trust them.”
Within the church, “even if someone’s been identified as an offender, it can be hard to take action,” she said.
“In the past, the Catholic Church has managed to silence victims,” she added, citing global sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church since allegations started to gain widespread publicity in the 1990s.
Mario Ghezzi, the vicar general for the Catholic Church in Cambodia, said he was not aware of any Catholic priests incarcerated in the country.
“If there are, they were never members of our church,” he said.
Rev. Totet Banaynal, the parish priest of Siem Reap Catholic Church, said he also was not aware of any imprisoned Catholic clergymen, adding that he had never heard of Mr. Sarot, who police said had been back and forth the past year between Cambodia and Amsterdam, where he had been working as a chaplain at the main international airport. He was suspended from that role following his arrest.
“Here in Siem Reap, in Phnom Penh, in Battambang, Pursat, Sihanoukville, and Svay Sisophon, the Catholic Church have regular prison visits, but we never heard of a Catholic priest in prison in Cambodia,” Rev. Banaynal said in an email.
When asked whether the church ran background checks on new or foreign priests, Rev. Banaynal said that his parish does not allow visiting priests to do services. However, “spiritual guides” who want to hold their own mass for tour groups must always provide a Celebret certificate, he said.
“It certifies that the priest is of good standing in the Catholic Church,” he said.
Mr. Seila of APLE said his organization was urging churches to run background checks on any of its members working with children.
“We are working directly with churches to raise awareness,” he said.
© 2017, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.