Philippine Senate detains cult members accused of forcing children to marry

Froilan Gallardo
Cagayan de Oro, Philippines
Philippine Senate detains cult members accused of forcing children to marry Philippine Sen. Risa Hontiveros discusses the alleged crimes committed by leaders of the Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. as Sen. Ronald dela Rosa listens during a committee hearing in Manila, Sept. 28, 2023.
Bibo Nueva España/Senate Public Relations and Information Bureau

The Philippine Senate on Thursday detained a young self-styled cult leader and three of his lieutenants after holding them in contempt for dodging questions in an inquiry into allegations they forced children to marry adults in their southern community.

The victims’ parents were duped into believing that the cult leader, 22-year-old Jey Rence Quilario, also called Senior Agila, was the reincarnation of the Sto. Niño or the child Jesus, senators alleged. 

Sen. Risa Hontiveros, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Women and Children, called for the investigation of Quilario’s group, the Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI) which controls about 3,000 members – more than half of them children – in a hinterland area called Kapihan in Socorro town, southern Surigao del Norte province. 

 “In the mountains of Kapihan, in the hands of the cult, there are children continuing to be abused,” so the government was racing against time, Hontiveros said.

“Based on those we have interviewed, those who do not follow the rules are kept in a fox hole, paddled or are made to swim in what they call the aroma beach, which is what they called a hole dug in the ground filled with human excrement and urine.”

Forced child marriages

The senator presented Jane, 15, (not her real name to protect her identity) who said she recalled being coerced into marrying and sleeping with an 18-year-old man she had never met. 

This directive, Jane said, came from Quilario who acted as the matchmaker. 

She further claimed their community secretary would compile a list of single members, including girls as young as 12 and men of at least 18. From this list, Quilario would select “the pair approved by God.” 

“Senior Agila is the one who chooses the pair. You can’t refuse because they claim that it’s God’s will,” she said. “We were later brought to a room where our leader told my husband to rape me.” 

Jane said Quilario mandated that every member must have a partner and engage in sexual relations with that partner after marriage. This was a requirement in the cult and would guarantee a place in heaven.

Quilario vehemently denied the accusation. 

“There is no truth to that. I cannot do that,” he said. “The children are only boasting.”  

Quilario, who has finished only grade 8, also denied accusations that he barred children from going to school. 

“That is not true. The children are allowed to go out. They can study. No one is stopping them,” he claimed.

Still, the cult leader and three members with him, Mamerto Galanida, Janeth Ajoc and Karren Sanico, were cited for contempt and ordered detained at the Senate’s detention facility pending an investigation.

Riza Rafonselle Taruc-Timcang, the mayor of Socorro, backed allegations that children were barred from leaving the group’s mountain community.  

“In 2019, there was a massive dropout of enrollees from elementary and high school. Only 30% of children in the community are allowed to go to school so they can claim the government’s cash aid,” the mayor told the senators. 

Sally Hans Barbaso, director of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in the southern region, reported that his office had issued two summonses to the group’s leaders in May. While none appeared in person, they sent a lawyer to communicate with investigators. 

“Based on the statements of our witnesses, they have firearms and are ready to fight,” Barbaso told the hearing.  

The bureau forwarded the case to the provincial prosecutor for the potential filing of charges against them, Barbaso said. These charges include illegal detention and child abuse.

Not long ago, another spiritual leader found himself facing charges linked to sexual abuse and other crimes.

Megachurch founder and Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, identified as former President Rodrigo Duterte’s spiritual adviser, is sought by United States authorities on criminal charges.

In November 2022, a U.S. grand jury charged Quiboloy on suspicion of orchestrating a sex-trafficking operation that coerced girls as young as 12 to have sex with him or risk “eternal damnation.” 

The Philippines justice department has said it was willing to extradite the pastor if U.S. authorities send a request. So far, the department says it has not received one.

Richel V. Umel in Iligan city, Philippines, contributed to this report. 


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