Sex abuse scandal at Indonesian school sparks soul-searching

JAKARTA (AFP) - A sex abuse scandal at one of Indonesia's most prestigious international schools has sparked a heated debate about the failure to protect youngsters in the country and prompted calls for harsher punishments for paedophiles.

Accusations that a six-year-old boy was sexually assaulted by cleaning staff at the nursery of the Jakarta International School, a favourite with the capital's expatriates and wealthy Indonesians, sparked widespread anger this month.

A second child has since come forward claiming to have been assaulted at the nursery - which the government has now ordered to be closed - and the school has also disclosed it used to employ an American teacher who was suspected of being a prolific paedophile.

The police have arrested six cleaners contracted from an outside company over the recent abuse accusations, one of whom has committed suicide, and the school has pledged to cooperate with the investigation.

Beyond public anger over the alleged abuse at the elite school, the scandal has focused attention on a subject previously little discussed in Indonesia - the high incidence of child sex attacks, particularly in schools.

The national commission for child protection says it received around 3,000 reports of sexual abuse of minors in 2013, double the figure from five years ago, with some 30 percent of cases in educational institutions.

Commission member Seto Mulyadi said the figures were "only the tip of the iceberg".

"Many cases still go unreported because victims' families feel ashamed," he added.

There has been much soul-searching in the national media on the subject following the Jakarta case, with commentators demanding that more action be taken to guarantee the safety of youngsters.

The Jakarta Post newspaper said in an editorial that the controversy had raised the question of "how safe our children are, including at reputable schools.

"Law enforcers, educators and parents alike still have much to do to guarantee the safety and welfare of our children."

The media have also focused intensely on other sex abuse stories in the wake of the scandal, such as one involving a six-year-old girl allegedly assaulted by a policeman in Aceh province, on western Sumatra island.

The child's mother initially said she felt too "ashamed" to report the matter but when accusations surfaced the policeman abused a second girl, she decided to go to the police.

The accused officer has since been arrested.

However even when attackers are caught, child safety campaigners say that sentences are typically too short to deter potential paedophiles.

The maximum sentence for a child sex offender in Indonesia is 15 years and a fine of up to US$26,000 (S$32,700) - but most who are convicted typically only receive three to five years in jail, campaigners say.

However the debate sparked by the Jakarta case has led to calls for tougher punishment and politicians have started discussing increasing sentences for people who sexually assault youngsters.

"The sentence should be increased to 20 years in prison at the minimum and a maximum penalty of life imprisonment," said minister Linda Amalia Sari Gumelar, whose portfolio includes child protection.

Senior Education Ministry official Lydia Freyani Hawadi added the case was a "golden opportunity" to improve checks on people applying to become teachers at schools.

Adding to the sense of crisis at Jakarta International School, news emerged last week that William James Vahey, a 64-year-old US citizen described by the FBI as a "suspected serial child predator", taught at the institution for a decade until 2002.

However there have been no allegations that Vahey, who committed suicide last month when his then employer discovered a thumb drive containing graphic images of boys, carried out abuse at the Indonesian school.

The institution has moved to try and put a lid on the controversy, with the head Tim Carr insisting in regular media appearances the school is committed to child protection.

The school says it has strengthened security by adding extra security cameras and improving its child protection measures.

While there is hope that something good may come out of a horrible case in the form of stronger legislation to protect children, activists say for many youngsters across Indonesia, it is already too late.

Children who have been abused "develop esteem problems, become withdrawn, have problems studying, and may be so disturbed that they grow up modelling the same behaviour as their perpetrators," said Mr Mulyadi from the child protection commission.

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