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Socorro NGO accused of child abuse eyeing to establish private school in community

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
Socorro NGO accused of child abuse eyeing to establish private school in community
Sen. Risa Hontiveros files a resolution seeking to investigate the sexual violence, child abuse and forced marriage perpetuated by an alleged cult.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros

MANILA, Philippines — An alleged religious "cult" based in Socorro is eyeing to establish its own private school for children in the community, the Department of Education said, even as the group faces charges for allegedly kidnapping and sexually abusing minors.

After allegedly causing more than 800 minors to drop out of school and flock to the mountains in 2019, Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI) has expressed its verbal intent to set up a school on an elevated area in Socorro town that used to be a tourist site, DepEd Siargao City Division Superintendent Karen Galanida said in an interview with Philstar.com.

While the group has yet to submit any formal document or application, an SBSI representative verbally asked the DepEd division office for a list of requirements needed for their application in May, Galanida said. 

According to Galanida, the religious group has also scouted a location for their planned school, which DepEd officials learned of during their visit to the group’s headquarters on September 5.

DepEd officials were reportedly told by a representative of SBSI in charge of education — a former teacher at Soccoro Central School — that the group "plans to set up" a school in one of the unused buildings in what used to be the site for Kapihan View Park, a former tourist site under the SBSI’s care.

This was also confirmed by DepEd Assistant Secretary Francis Bringas, who told Philstar.com that there was "no formal application yet for the establishment of a school" but that they have been asking for requirements.

“Verbally, they mentioned that they are in the process of preparing for the establishment of a private school within the Kapihan,” Bringas said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Socorro town Mayor Riza Rafonselle Timcang has called on law enforcement agencies to act on the "real threat and imminent danger of violence" from SBSI after they staged a mass demonstration to protest the Senate's upcoming probe into allegations that they subjected children to rape, forced labor and unwanted marriages.

This came after Sen. Risa Hontiveros bared in her privilege speech last week that around 1,000 children are under the group’s influence. More than 800 students in the elementary and secondary levels who were members of the group left school in 2019 after the group’s leader threatened that those who would not join him will go to hell, the senator added.

Some children as young as 12 years old were being forced into sexual relations with the group's self-styled messianic figure, said Hontiveros, who reportedly spoke to first-hand witnesses. Others have been forced into marriages with adults.

Complaints related to trafficking, illegal detention, child marriage and child abuse have been filed against 13 SBSI members, the Department of Justice said.

Philstar.com has reached out to SBSI and will update this story with their response.

DepEd: The goal is to keep them in school 

Galanida said that SBSI first reached out to DepEd on July 25 requesting if they could enroll the 800 children under their care in Lanit-ag Primary School – the nearest school to Sitio Kapihan, where the group’s headquarters are.

The DepEd official thumbed down the request as the school only had three classrooms and four teachers, which could only accommodate 150 students. 

“So we looked for other schools with enough absorptive capacity and with enough internet to facilitate learning,” Galanida said. 

Other schools where the 800 children under SBSI are now enrolled in Del Pilar Elementary School, Atoya Elementary School and Salog Elementary School.

Both Bringas and Galanida said that DepEd is working double time to provide psychological first aid to the children that the group “allowed” to return to school this school year. 

As in other divisions, however, Galanida said that DepEd’s Siargao division is short of guidance counselors who could give appropriate psychological support. Instead, DepEd has deployed guidance teachers, or teachers with training in providing psychological first aid.

Bringas said: “Initial report of our DepEd team who went there – the (students) were very receptive, and (the teachers) could see the eagerness of the learners to go back to school.”  

“They were so teary-eyed when they saw the learners welcoming them,” he said.

DepEd’s priority is to ensure that the learners “go back to school” and not drop out, Bringas and Galanida said. 

Bringas said that decision on whether they will continue to participate in SBSI’s activities "rests on the decision of their parents."

‘None of them have returned here’

Galanida said that the families who went to Sitio Kapihan may find it difficult to return “because they have nothing to come back to.”

“The 800+ learners are all from Kapihan and residing in Kapihan. They have nothing to go home to here because they no longer have houses and jobs,” Galanida said in Filipino.

“They don’t have land anymore. They don’t have furniture because all of those were sold. That’s what I see – that they will not be interested in going back because they have nowhere to stay,” she added. 

Galanida added that there is one barangay that locals call a “ghost barangay” because all of the items and houses have been sold.

‘Mass exodus of teachers’

The DepEd officials confirmed that there was a “mass exodus” of teachers in the area after the “cult’s” leader threatened all those who would not join him, using the event of an earthquake in February 2019 to scare the people of Socorro of a doomsday event.

Hontiveros said in her speech that the threat, in particular, was that “they would all burn in hell.” These had all the trappings of a religious cult, the senator added.

Galanida said that around 38 schools were affected by the mass resignations in 2019. 

In Surigao Central School, 30 teachers resigned while 29 teachers in Socorro High School left their jobs to join the "cult."

Bringas, who was regional director at the time the issue started, said: “The simultaneous resignations happened at the start of the school year, so that became a problem as we had to scramble for replacements for teachers. You can just imagine the difficulty of finding replacements.”

The DepEd official said that he did not know the actual reasons cited — “They just cited for personal reasons. They decided to stay in the mountains.”  

Bringas said that as early as March 2019, DepEd had met with the teachers part of SBSI to encourage them not to tender their resignations.

“During the conference with them when I went to Socorro, they were not bent on resigning because we were encouraging them. They can still stay in the mountains but they can go down and go back during the weekends,” he said.

Some teachers appeared to genuinely believe that the world would end, Bringas said.

“When the school year ended (in June and July), we no longer had contact with the teachers during the summer break. That’s when they left,” Bringas said.

Besides public school teachers, Hontiveros said that 13 regular employees and 41 job order workers from the Municipal Local Government Unit of Socorro resigned in the same manner.

“According to someone my staff interviewed, a former elementary school teacher, Senior Agila allegedly said that no government employee would go to heaven. If we have debts, we shouldn't worry because Senior Agila will supposedly erase our debts. I have the statement of this former DepEd teacher with me,” Hontiveros said.

‘These children are classmates of our children’

Galanida said that she and other DepEd officials have expressed concern over helping the more than 800 children stay in school.

“We’re worried about the children. They are also classmates of our own children,” she said.

“We’re just embracing them. Whatever DepEd can provide, they will follow us on what arrangement we want. So we just pray that they are sustained in their intention to get back. We hope that they will not be swayed with what’s happening now,” Galanida said.

Galanida added that if the group intends to go through with their application for a private school, they have to submit to certain conditions that would require regular monitoring of their activities by the local government. 

As it stands, Galanida said that the strict “layers” of access before visitors are allowed entry by the SBSI should not be the norm in their planned school. 

"Because the LGU has to issue a resolution of support for the establishment of the school before it is approved. They should not shut themselves off, no matter how the school operates. I cannot actually say because they haven't submitted an application yet,” she said.

The DepEd official also said that she “understands” their desire to have a school nearer to their community as the nearest DepEd school takes hours of travel over uneven roads.

“The location is quite far. Even the nearest school, it's several kilometers away – there are no decent roads. It's muddy. The nearest DepEd school there is still quite challenging to access,” Galanida said.

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