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Hontiveros: Minors in Surigao del Norte ‘cult’ allegedly abused, forced to marry


More than 1,000 children were allegedly being sexually abused and forced into marriages by a religious “cult” in Surigao del Norte's Socorro town, according to Senator Risa Hontiveros.

In a privilege speech Monday, Hontiveros also alleged that the “cult,” which had been nestled in the mountainous portion of the municipality since 2019, had links to the illegal drug trade.

Led by a certain Jey Rence or “Senior Agila”, members of the Socorro Bayanihan Services were reportedly living in location known as “Kapihan,” where stories of abuse were reported, including minors and children as young as 15 years old being raped and forced to marry the cult leader.

“A community of children in Socorro, Surigao del Norte is crying for help. These children are our children. Ang pinag-uusapan nating mga bata ay higit sa isang libong kabataan na nasa kamay ng isang mapanlinlang, malupit, at mapang-abusong kulto,” Hontiveros said.

Senior Agila

According to the senator, the Socorro Bayanihan Services used to be a civic group that assisted local townsfolk.

However, research and testimonies gathered by Hontiveros' team found that this all changed in 2017 after the then-17-year-old Jey Rence was endorsed to become the leader of the group, with some members allegedly claiming he was the next “Messiah” and the “new Jesus.”

Three-term Socorro Mayor and former Board Member Mamerto Galanida allegedly taught Jay Rence how to speak in public and was later declared to be the reincarnation of the Sto. Niño.

Jey Rence then supposedly assumed the new identity of “Senior Agila.”

In 2019, a massive earthquake that struck Soccoro was said to have lured residents to join the cult as Senior Agila claimed Kapihan was heaven and that those who refused to join him would go to hell.

This allegedly resulted in a mass exodus of residents, the mass resignation of over 100 Department of Education teachers and more than 50 government employees, and the plummeting of student enrollments both in primary and secondary schools.

“Ayon sa isang nakapanayam ng aking staff na dating elementary school teacher, sabi daw ni Senior Agila, wala daw government employee ang pupunta sa langit,” said Hontiveros.

(According to a former elementary school teacher interviewed by my staff, Senior Agila supposedly said that no government employee would get to heaven.)

“Kung may mga utang daw kami, huwag daw kami mag-alala, dahil buburahin daw ni Senior Agila ang aming mga utang. Hawak ko po ang salaysay nitong dating Deped teacher na ito,” she said.

(Anyone who was in debt need not worry as Senior Agila would erase these debts. I have the former Deped teacher's testimony.)

A 12-year-old witness also claimed that the cult was armed and that he saw members with sacks of firearms during the election period.

Funding

According to Hontiveros, the cult sourced its funding from the government financial assistance that its members received, including the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) benefits, senior citizen pensions, and the Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situation program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

More than 50% of senior citizen pensions went to their funds, while 40% to 60% of the financial assistance the members received during the pandemic and the devastation of Typhoon Odette was pocketed by the cult.

Hontiveros also said their research found the group had alleged links to illicit drugs.

“In fact po, kung tama ang sources, ang motibasyon kung bakit tinayo ang kulto na ito ay para maging human shield dahil nailagay sa narco-list ang pasimuno ng organization na ito na si Karren Sanico at ang kanyang dating business partner na yumaong Municipal Circuit Court Judge, na pinaslang di umano dahil sa kanyang pagkasangkot sa droga noong 2019,” the senator said.

(If our sources were correct, the cult was established to be a human shield. Because the organization's founder, Kerren Sanico, and her former business partner, a now deceased Municipal Circuit Court Judge who was killed in 2019 for alleged links to drugs, were included in a narco-list.)

“Si Mamerto Galanida ay naihamig di umano nila Sanico at naging bahagi din ng masterminds ng grupo,” she added.

Escaped children

In July, eight children fled from the alleged cult and sought help from the municipal government.

Mayor Riza Timcang immediately formed a task force to look into the cult but the organization and the children’s parents filed a habeas corpus writ to take back custody of the minors.

Hontiveros said one of the minors had been returned to Kapihan.

“We need to save those children. It is our duty not just as senators, but also as parents, as human beings, to save children in most need of our help,” she said.

“We managed to raise the age of sexual consent, we passed the law penalizing child marriage, we strengthened protections against child trafficking. Now, real children are in danger. And time is of the essence. We cannot, we must not look away,” the senator added.

Hontiveros also said Senior Agila recently visited the Senate after their performing group, Omega de Salonera, won an international event in South Korea.

“Si Senior Aguila mismo – ang rapist ng mga bata, ang facilitator ng child marriage – ay nakatapak pa sa ating Senado at nagpa-picture pa sa atin na mga Senador. Alam ko, hindi natin ito alam, mga colleagues. Dahil lagi naman may nagpapa-picture sa atin,” she added.

(Senior Aguila himself - the child rapist and the facilitator of child marriages - set foot in our Senate and his picture taken with us Senators. My colleagues, I know we were unaware of the circumstances because there's always someone who wants their pictures taken with us.)

Socorro Bayanihan denies allegations

Meanwhile, Socorro Bayanihan Services rejected the allegations against them, according to Mav Gonzales’ report on “24 Oras.”

 

“Fabricated lies 'yan kaya nga we are filing... a case for Kidnapping and Serious Illegal Detention. Na sa piskalya na 'yan kasi sila yung kumidnap sa mga bata... At sinulsulan pa nila. Naggawa pa ng mga affidavit parang fabricated,” Galanida, Vice President of the Socorro Bayanihan Services, said.

Ralna Diane dela Peña, a member of the organization, also denied they were armed and had connections to the drug trade.

"Pumunta na po dito 'yung mga pulis, they conducted their investigation sa province, our region. Negative po kasi wala po kami talaga ditong drugs,” said dela Peña.

"At even may mga lumalabas na po na armas, intelligence reports from the CID sa ibang ahensya ng pulis even from our governor even confirmed na wala po ditong armas wala din po drugs,” she said. — DVM, GMA Integrated News

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