Finally, it has been widely exposed and now being investigated. Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI), which was founded by the late Rosalina Lasala Taruc in 1980 in Surigao del Norte, is now the subject of an investigation by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and subject of a criminal complaint for child marriage, illegal detention, trafficking, child abuse, among others, filed by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).
In her initial report, Senator Risa Hontiveros said that more than 100 public school teachers who are SBSI members went on AWOL and enrollments decreased by 847 learners who were also members of the cult. A tale worthy of a Netflix documentary, the incredible narration of many victims and witnesses deserves a deeper dive as to how one person can manage to dupe an entire community into a devilish scheme in the guise of a Messianic movement. Regardless of the outcome of the case, if some see that there is a failure in intelligence in this scenario, I see a failure in the education.
Under international law, Article 3 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child specifically states: “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” Since children spend a significant amount of their lives in schools and closely interact with school officials, particularly teachers, on a daily basis, the school as an institution has significant influence on children’s development, next only to the family. Recognizing such fact, our domestic law states that the parent places the child under the effective authority of the school upon enrollment. Under the Family Code, its administrators and teachers have special parental authority and responsibility for the minor child while under their supervision, instruction, or custody (Article 218) as they are collectively considered as substitute parents or one who stands in loco parentis (in place of the parents). The education sector has a crucial role to play in realizing children’s right to protection by empowering children to protect themselves and identifying and ensuring an appropriate response to children who are abused or neglected or exploited, whether on or off school grounds. Most certainly, public school personnel have received some kind of training from the Department of Education (DepEd) to enable them to detect signs of child abuse and to report disclosures of child abuse to social welfare authorities. Whenever such abuse is disclosed, psychosocial support services are available. Instead of allotting millions in confidential funds, the DepEd leadership ought to allot more funds on training and development of teachers and other school officials! If only the alleged SBSI abuses were detected earlier by school officials, Senyor Agila (real name, Jay Rence Quilario) might not have that considerable influence over these children. As shared by a lawyer friend who is a child rights advocate for the past 20 years, a 2015 Philippine National Baseline Study on Violence Against Children, “only 29 percent of children were aware that they could report abuse and to whom, even though 69 percent had attended orientation seminars, training, awareness programs and other services on child protection and child welfare conducted by the government officials.” Such low level of reporting pointed towards a culture of silence concerning violence against children. This cultural norm, plus the convincing or coercive powers of Senyor Agila and his cohorts, combined with a lack of support services from government (teachers and law enforcers, in particular), all contribute to a perfect storm in the municipality of Socorro, Surigao del Norte. The supposed 3,000 strong SBSI, which include former policemen and teachers, has reportedly maltreated children in the form of “systematic abuse, rape, forced marriage, trafficking, forced labor” in the context of “cult-like activities”. I believe that any cult should be punished with a heavy hand or severe judgment, especially when it victimizes children.
In the Bible, Luke 17:1-2 tells us that Jesus once said to his disciples, “There will always be temptations to sin, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting! It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around your neck than to cause one of these little ones to fall into sin.” During biblical times, the persons who did the tempting were the Pharisees, who by their teaching were leading the innocent ones astray. Senyor Agila, as well as any modern-day Pharisee, claiming to be a godly man (reincarnation of the Santo Niño), deserves a Mafia-style death (millstone hung around the neck). Yet, Senyor Agila and his 150-man private army are not the only ones who deserve to be hung. Those negligent teachers and government personnel charged with the role of protecting children are just as responsible for allowing the establishment of “Nueva Jerusalem Esperanza Ministry Government” in Sitio Kapihan, Municipality of Socorro. Such group cannot be established by one “Supreme Divine Minister” alone overnight. It takes a concerted and deliberate effort of deceivers and a season of neglect by government to allow such group to be as powerful and influential as revealed in these Senate hearings.
We all face deceit, inevitably. Some are smart enough to sniff out the scam. Others are ignorant, not by their own accord, but by circumstances, just as minority, illiteracy, or lack of education. Those tasked with protecting children, especially parents and schools, should be extra vigilant these days against false teachers. As one theologian said, a modern-day Pharisee is someone “who follows the impulse to be seen as righteous by obeying certain laws, while ignoring more important matters of the heart.”
They may have good intentions as the Pharisees in the Bible, but they missed the point of seeing salvation, the way only Jesus has done for us. Goodness, as in following certain rules, can be a smokescreen to seeing the grace of our Almighty God. Some people can be religious but treat people with wickedness while others can be a person for others but does not recognize our Almighty God as Lord and Savior. My pastor friend taught me that God’s love has neither conditions nor pauses. He just does. So whenever someone teaches us to follow certain rules in exchange for God’s love, in all likelihood, he is as shady as Senyor Agila! Sinners we all are, real justification and salvation can only come from the ultimate “sacrifice without defect” in keeping to what the Bible tells us in 2 Cor. 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We do not need Senyor Agila to teach us that.
A former infantry and intelligence officer in the Army, Siegfred Mison showcased his servant leadership philosophy in organizations such as the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Malcolm Law Offices, Infogix Inc., University of the East, Bureau of Immigration, and Philippine Airlines. He is a graduate of West Point in New York, Ateneo Law School, and University of Southern California. A corporate lawyer by profession, he is an inspirational teacher and a Spirit-filled writer with a mission.
For questions and comments, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.