When convicted paedophile William Vahey stabbed himself to death in Minnesota on March 21 to avoid Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) charges of child molestation in Nicaragua, it couldn't have come at a worse time for the far-off Jakarta International School (JIS). On that same day, JIS had became embroiled in an unprecedented sexual abuse case of its own, which initially focused on cleaning contractors, but has now ballooned into a scandal involving at least two teachers and a US$125 million (S$156 million) civil suit.
About 3,000 cases of sexual abuse of minors were reported to the national commission for child protection last year. Social workers say the number of reported cases is rising, fuelled in part by greater social awareness of the problem.
Founded by the British, United States, Australian and Yugoslav embassies 60 years ago, JIS' four campuses now have 250 teachers and 2,600 high, middle and elementary school students of all nationalities, including 47 Singaporeans.
The 64-year-old Vahey's suicide fed into the perfect storm. As the husband of the then-deputy head of school, he had taught world affairs at JIS from 1992 until 2002, before moving on to international schools in Venezuela, Britain and Nicaragua.
The FBI has yet to find evidence of wrongdoing in Jakarta, one of 10 schools he taught at going back to 1970. But school administrators expect the worst given the bureau's description of him as one of the most prolific sexual predators they have encountered.
Fellow JIS teachers gave Vahey a derogatory nickname because of what they considered to be his creepy behaviour. One even recalls the American telling him: "One of the great things about living here is that you can do things you can never get away with in the US." In a country where conspiracy theories are often preferred to fact, the Vahey case has aroused widespread suspicions in the Indonesian media - and among police investigators as well - that JIS harbours a long-standing paedophile ring.
But as with the infamous 1987 McMartin pre-school scandal in California, the evidence in the JIS controversy seems to rest almost entirely on the accounts of three kindergarten-age boys, who witnesses say had to be coached by their parents during police reconstructions.
Initially, six employees of Danish global cleaning firm ISS (contracted by JIS) were charged with raping one of the boys 20 times in a ground-floor toilet over a three-month period, even though they had been randomly assigned and the facility was next to a playground and in constant use.
Records show that one cleaner, who later committed suicide in police custody, had never worked in the toilet. The other five remain in detention, but the Attorney-General's Office keeps returning their case files to the police because of insufficient evidence.
Experts can't understand why a boy who had been subjected to such violent acts at the hands of strangers, instead of the patient, non-violent "grooming" associated with most child molesters, would have taken until late March to say anything.
When the mother first approached JIS, she and her American husband wanted the case kept quiet. Several days later, a senior school official even accompanied them to a police station to make a formal complaint.
From there, however, it began to rebound on the school, with the mother bizarrely appearing on the Lawyer's Club television show on TV One in a Zorro mask, claiming the school was negligent for allowing the alleged crime to happen.
Nearly two months later, on May 16, a second Indonesian mother, this one married to a Spanish national, claimed her five-year-old son had been raped by the same group of janitors.
Then in e-mails to other parents on May 28, she dropped a bombshell by also accusing American elementary school principal Elsa Donohue, Canadian teacher Neil Bantleman and Indonesian teacher's aide Ferdinant Tjiong of child molestation.
That was the same day the first complainant bumped up her original April 21 civil suit against JIS from US$12 million to US$125 million, later explaining it was "just a number" and that nothing could make up for her son's suffering.
Then, on June 3, the Turkish father of a third boy went to the school and made allegations against the same three teachers.
The police were informed and eight days later, the first complainant followed suit, even though she had never mentioned the teachers up to then.
Vahey reportedly fed his rape victims drug-laced cookies. At JIS, Donohue - who has not been detained - was accused of drugging the boys with a blue liquid, before handing them over to Bantleman and Tjiong.
In some ways, the case has gathered similar momentum to that which befell the Newmont Mining company, accused by environmental activists of polluting North Sulawesi's Buyat Bay more than a decade ago.
Fuelled by nationalist sentiment and an error-strewn New York Times story, the case ended up in court. There, in the longest trial in Indonesian criminal history, a panel of judges exonerated Newmont after finding unguarded police water samples had been spiked with mercury.
Flamboyant Indonesian lawyer Hotman Paris Hutapea, whose three children are JIS alumni, claims police haven't a scrap of evidence against the teachers. Says one of their colleagues: "It seems there is a hidden hand guiding the whole process."
That impression is now widespread, compounded by an apparent paucity of medical evidence and the way the stories have kept changing - in one instance after it was realised that renovations last year had replaced walls with see-through glass dividers.
Still, school officials and parents alike continue to wonder what triggered it all. The biggest number of students are, in fact, from well-heeled Indonesian families.
Like those of the foreign students, they have remained remarkably loyal to the school.
Apart from minor drug taking and disciplinary problems, JIS has an unblemished reputation. Now, sheltering behind post-Bali bomb blast-proof walls, it has discovered the real danger may lie within.
The age of innocence is over.
This article was first published on August 8, 2014.
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