A 72-year-old lay priest was charged on Monday with sexually assaulting two girls from the same village in Banteay Meanchey province, officials said.
Nong Thammy had confessed to molesting two unrelated girls, aged 9 and 11, on Saturday morning at Prey Prich village in Poipet district’s Poipet commune, said Mann Bo, director of the provincial police’s minor crimes bureau.
One of the girls reported being assaulted while tending cows, Mr. Bo said, while another said she had been approached while playing with friends. Responding to complaints from the girls’ parents the same morning, police found Mr. Thammy drunkenly riding his bicycle.
“The lay priest is sometimes drunk,” Mr. Bo said. “Judging by his behavior, it looks like he is mentally ill.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Bo said he had no confirmation on any medical diagnosis for Mr. Thammy.
Sok Keo Bandith, provincial prosecutor, said the suspect was charged in the provincial court with indecent assault, which is punishable by one to three years in prison and a fine of up to 6 million riel, or about $1,500.
Authorities said that Mr. Thammy was referred to as “achar,” or lay priest, at the village’s Palalai pagoda. The title can be bestowed officially by a pagoda’s monks or unofficially by a respected member of the community.
Im Sophearak, Poipet commune police chief, said the latter case applied to Mr. Thammy. “He just showed up wherever there’s a ceremony,” Mr. Sophearak said.
Cambodia’s monkhood has been plagued by scandals in recent years. Earlier this year, a pagoda chief was sentenced to 15 years in prison for raping 10 young monks in his care. In June, a video circulated on Facebook appeared to show a monk smoking meth with several women.
Ministry of Cult and Religions spokesman Seng Sok Mony said that the case would draw more unfortunate attention to religious institutions.
“If you wear an achar’s clothes, people start calling you achar,” he said. Mr. Thammy’s actions “certainly [negatively] affect religion and culture, including Cambodia’s law.”