NGO: Role in Child Sex Abuse Case Distorted

Child protection NGO Friends International said this week it will contest being officially cited as the originator of allegations of sexual misconduct at Our Home orphanage that led to the center’s closure last month and to the imprisonment of its director, Hang Vibol, on suspicion of sexually abusing boys in his care.

Mr. Vibol, a former director of anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), ran the Our Home orphanage and school from 1999 until it was shut down by the Ministry of Social Affairs on March 5 following his arrest two days earlier. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged him with indecently assaulting a number of the children under his care and he remains in prison awaiting trial. 

Following Mr. Vibol’s arrest, APLE stated that its investigation into its former director, which began in June 2014, was done at the request of the Ministry of Social Affairs, which had received reports of possible abuse at Our Home by Friends International and First Step Cambodia. A statement released by APLE on March 9 clarified that Friends International reported the case based on information provided by two unnamed French individuals.

Friends International quickly distanced itself from the case,explaining that it had simply helped two people report concerning behavior at the center, which did not contain the serious allegations of sexual abuse later reported by APLE.

On March 26, You Sopheak—the inspector at the municipal department of social affairs who received the complaints and asked APLE to investigate—described an order of events that once again began with Friends.

“Friends International sent a report to the Ministry of Social Affairs in June, then the ministry sent a letter to Phnom Penh social affairs to investigate,” he said.

James Sutherland, communications officer for Friends, said via email Thursday that the organization was “unhappy” that it was still being named as the source of the claims and would seek to redress the issue.

“We are unhappy that the perception is that we are the source of the complaint, as this is not true,” Mr. Sutherland said, explaining that the organization had acted solely in its capacity as a facilitator for individuals concerned about the welfare of children.

“We are not content, as we are not the originary source. The complainants are. We will be contacting the court to ensure clarity in this,” he said.

Mr. Sutherland explained that procedures exist internationally providing the right to anonymity—for various reasons—for people wishing to report suspected sex abuse and it is the mandated duty of child protection organizations to assist them.

“Without such a right, many reports of child abuse would not be made,” he said. “If there are significant child protection concerns arising from a complaint we receive, we will prepare a report, which we submit to the Ministry [of Social Affairs] on behalf of the original reporter.”

Alastair Hilton, technical adviser at First Step Cambodia, said his organization assisted Friends International by meeting with the individuals who originally raised their concerns about Our Home and described that meeting in the letter that was sent to the ministry.

Mr. Hilton said that as far as he was aware, the letter did not constitute a formal complaint and the concerns it aired were not the same allegations as those that emerged after APLE’s investigation.

“Technically, it wasn’t a complaint. If our organizations come across any bad practices at an NGO, we raise the concerns with authorities,” Mr. Hilton said.

“But when concerns relate to institutions where there are a large number of children in residence under the care of a relatively few individuals, it is especially important to take them seriously and to investigate them,” he added.

Following his arrest, Mr. Vibol denied the allegations. He accused APLE’s founder and former president Thierry Darnaudet of orchestrating a spurious investigation in retaliation for a report that Mr. Vibol filed with the government in 2013, which was dismissed by authorities but also contained child sex abuse claims against Mr. Darnaudet.

Mr. Vibol named two former colleagues at Our Home—with whom he had personal disputes—as the complainants, claiming that they were acting on orders from Mr. Darnaudet.

Mr. Hilton said he was bound by confidentiality to protect the identities of the complainants, but that none of the information reported by the media was familiar to him, and the information conveyed by the individuals was of a general nature.

“There was nothing at that stage to suggest the kinds of things that emerged in the papers, it was more generally about inappropriate sexual behavior between teenagers,” he said, adding that initial reports did not include any accusations against specific individuals.

“No allegations were made. As [First Step] had no further involvement in the case, I can’t comment on what evidence they are based on,” he said.

One of the men Mr. Vibol named as a complainant was Keo Pi­seth­dara, who left Our Home to run his own NGO in 2012 and who denied last week that he was behind the initial report.

“In response to the article posted in Cambodia Daily on 7 March 2015, I clarify that I did not make the initial complaint of sexual abuse against Hang Vibol, nor was I involved with anyone or any institution to do so,” he said in an email.

Mr. Pisethdara said he quit as executive director of Our Home due to a disagreement with Mr. Vibol, but that his decision was purely related to how the NGO was being managed.

“During my period in Our Home, I never saw any strange or inappropriate behavior by Vibol against children in the homes. Therefore, it is false that I have put a complaint against Vibol,” he said.

Jean Marie Anno—the second alleged complainant named by Mr. Vibol, who left Our Home when his French NGO pulled out as a partner—could not be reached.

Mr. Vibol’s lawyer Suy Sokhon said yesterday his client maintains that the three men have conspired against him.

“Three people: Thierry Dar­nau­det, Pisethdara, and Jean Marie. They might not have filed the complaints, but these men have stage managed this,” he said, adding that 10 children who lived at the orphanage have promised to provide testimony in his client’s defense.

Following the arrest of Mr. Vibol, APLE president Samleng Seila insisted that there was no technical or legal conflict of interest in the group investigating its former director.

On Thursday, Mr. Seila said he was confident that the police have enough evidence for successful prosecution of Mr. Vibol. He also said that the child protection groups involved in the case had done their jobs, and he expected the court would do the same.

“We should look at this case with the evidence we have. It should not matter which organization performed what—all parties are doing their job by informing authorities of possible child abuse,” he said.

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