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Waging war against child p*rn. Are we winning?

by Joanna Deala

It’s been almost 14 years since the country waged war against child pornography, if one is to base it on the passage of Republic Act No. 9775 in 2009. 

But up to this day, this phenomenon remains rampant, seemingly keeping up with the evolution of technology.

With the popularity of social media and other messaging platforms, predators and facilitators found new ways to continue such crimes against the children. 

A few of the recent cases of online sexual abuse and exploitation of children (OSAEC) in the country are four young individuals that People’s Recovery, Empowerment Development Assistance (Preda) Foundation, a non-government organization, takes care of.

These children were as young as six to 14 years old when they were rescued by law enforcement agents and social workers in November and December 2021 from their facilitators who, unfortunately, are the own parents and two transgender uncles of the two victims.

It took five months before the rescue was conducted, following a report that the authorities received in June of that year from the father of the two children.

Criminal cases were filed against the facilitators for violating the Anti-Trafficking in Person Act, Anti-Child Pornography Act, and the Child Protection Act. Their parents were put behind bars, but their transgender uncles remain at large. 

Court hearings for this OSAEC case are still ongoing, with Preda Foundation hoping that the judiciary would accept the taped testimonies of the victims so that they won’t have to retell the traumatic experience they went through at the hands of their own family.

Five children — whose age range from two to 17 — in Dinalupihan, Bataan were also rescued by local authorities from their mother who sexually abused and exploited her own children online. 

The mother was arrested for violating the “Anti-Online Sexual Abuse or Exploitation of Children (OSAEC) and Anti-Child Sexual Abuse or Exploitation Materials (CSAEM) law,” the “Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2022,” and the “Anti-Child Abuse Law.” 

The perpetrator, who is an Australian national, was also arrested and sentenced to 15 months of imprisonment, according to the Australian Border Force.

Sanctuary of abused children

The four OSAEC victims under Preda are among the thousands of children that the foundation has saved from their abusers since it was established in 1974 by Father Shay Cullen, an Irish missionary of the Columban Missionary Society.

Father Shay Cullen

Cullen flew from Ireland to the Philippines in 1969 to do missionary work in Olongapo City, where he would teach students in St. Joseph’s Parish who were “skeptical, unruly and had a little respect for authority.” 

Three years later, when the country was placed under Martial Law, Cullen saw how children became victims of drug trade and how teenagers were locked up in prisons and jails in the city, where the US Naval Base was located. This prompted him to establish an alternative drug rehabilitation he initially named the Zambales Rehabilitation Center, now known as Preda Foundation.

“Many teenagers [were] assassinated by death squads in those days. So I set this as a sanctuary and began the Preda Foundation. That was the beginning of my mission here,” Cullen told republicasia.

In 1983, he began to fight against the sex tourist industry after learning about the plight of children, who were as young as nine years old, with venereal disease or sexually transmitted disease. 

Cullen said he did not only hear stories of children being sold on the street for sex, but he himself was offered it.

“Because the US Navy was here, they had sex bars, there’s a brothel,” he said.

“I know that this is a shocking, terrible problem. I became alerted to it and I’m always planning how to help,” he added.

Cullen shared that he wrote a piece to expose the crime, which succeeded as it caught the attention of other nations. Since then, Cullen and Preda Foundation intensified their campaign against sexual abuse and stood by their mission to protect women and children from such crime.

Preda Foundation has built homes in Zambales and Cebu to give shelter to children who are victims of sexual abuse and trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, and children who are in conflict with the law and at risk of becoming in conflict with the law.

These include the Therapeutic Home for Girls in Subic, Zambales and the Therapeutic Homes for Boys in Castillejos, Zambales and Liloan, Cebu.

When Preda established a home for victims of sexual abuse, they began to discover how widespread human trafficking and child abuse is, according to Cullen.

Based on the organization’s 2022 report with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) that republicasia has obtained, a total of 134 rescued children were given protection and care by the foundation. 

Of this number, 89 were female victims of domestic sexual abuse and rape, eight female victims of physical abuse, four female and three male children at risk of abuse, 24 female victims and one male victim of trafficking, one female and three male victims of OSAEC, and one baby of a child-victim.

This number is higher than the 96 rescued children in the foundation’s 2021 report.

Why OSAEC still exists?

There have been several laws passed to fight OSAEC, one of which is RA No. 11930 or the “Anti-Online Sexual Abuse or Exploitation of Children (OSAEC) and Anti-Child Sexual Abuse or Exploitation Materials (CSAEM).” 

RA No. 11930, which amended RA No. 9775, increases the responsibilities of social media platforms, electronic service providers, and internet and financial intermediaries by mandating them to block OSAEC materials and cooperate with law enforcement agents. The implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of the law was signed last May 2023. 

These laws are passed to put an end to OSAEC, whose main cause is poverty. But people should not resort to the online phenomenon to solve their problems with lack of basic needs and financial resources, said Sister Mary John Mananzan, chairperson of CyberGuardians PH. 

Sister Mary John Mananzan

CyberGuardians PH is a non-government organization that advocates anti-OSAEC.

“The main thing there is the poverty nga. ‘Yung talagang walang makuhang trabaho, etc. But even then, yung loss of family values talaga, Mananzan told republicasia.

“Kasi kahit pobre ka naman, hindi naman lahat ng pobre gagawin nila sa anak na ‘yon. Kasi meron pa silang family values,” she continued.

Parents should be the ones protecting their children and not putting them in harm’s way, the Missionary Benedictine Sister pointed out.

National Bureau of Investigation Anti-Human Trafficking Division (NBI-AHTRAD) chief Marie Catherine Nolasco agreed to this, saying, “Hindi sufficient na dahilan para ibenta mo ang sarili mong anak o ang kabataan para kumita ka lamang.”

Another factor, Nolasco said, is that Filipinos can easily communicate in English.

“Karamihan sa mga perpetrators ay English ang gamit kasi mga foreigners. English ang usapan at madali nilang nakakausap itong mga Pilipino na gustong mag-provide ng ganitong service,” she said.

The NBI did not also leave out the possibility that there is a syndicate behind the proliferation of CSAEM.

“When it comes to the production of the CSAEM, pwedeng meron yang sindikato para sa distribution. Minsan kailangan mong mag-subscribe sa isang site para may access ka to various materials consisting of CSAEM,” Nolasco explained.

“Pero pagdating dun sa ino-offer yung bata diretso sa foreigner, hindi siguro sindikato dahil diretso, parang referral na lang din,” she continued.

Since the passage of RA No. 11930 in July 2022, NBI-AHTRAD conducted a total of 16 operations that led to the arrest of 18 subjects. They were able to rescue 42 victims, 27 of which were minors.

“This year, we’ve already conducted 16 operations, kasi nga siguro brought about na rin ng increase in referrals from our foreign counterparts at tsaka nagkaroon na rin kami ng sufficient capability to address this issue,” Nolasco said.

The agency conducted six operations in 2020, nine in 2021, and 12 in 2022. 

The Philippine government declared a war against sexual abuse and exploitation of children last year.

Challenges in OSAEC detection

While new technology has many advantages, it also has a range of disadvantages that affect NBI-AHTRAD’s operations.

With private messaging –  such as Skype, Viber, and Telegram – perpetrators have a way to subscribe to private chat groups to connect with their victims. The advanced technology made it hard for NBI to track OSAEC cases because there is now a virtual private network (VPN) that hides users’ identity and IP address for security.

“Ang contact nila ay diretso na, ‘pag nakuha nila ‘yung contact details kung sino magpo-provide sa kanila ng service or mag po-provide sa kanila ng sexual exploitation, diretso na nilang kakausapin,” Nolasco said.

“Dahil conscious sila sa privacy, ginagamit nila yung technology pagdating sa privacy. So mahirap ma-detect minsan yung mga perpetrators,” she added.

Nolasco said OSAEC cases are usually rampant in poverty-stricken areas such as Taguig, Romblon, and Cebu. Meanwhile, many of the perpetrators are from countries like the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Australia, and The Netherlands. 

The NBI receives leads from their foreign counterparts who recover CSAEM from the arrested perpetrators — and vice versa. 

“[Kung] makikita nilang Pinoy, ire-refer nila sa amin itong mga nakita nilang materials. Tas pag na-review na nila ‘to at na-refer sa amin, iimbestigahan naman namin at mahuhuli naman sa parte nito itong nag-provide sa materials na ito,” Nolasco explained.

“Dito naman, makukuha natin kung ano ‘yung materials or sino mga nagiging kausap nila, at kung makikita natin dito na mga foreigners, kukunin natin yung information at ise-share naman namin ‘to sa aming mga counterparts,” she added.

Hold platforms, ISPs accountable

Given the challenge in detecting OSAEC cases, Preda believes that social media and other messaging platforms should be “more proactive” in curbing the spread of child pornography.

But if they cannot be reliable, the government must take action against them, said Preda Foundation president Francis Bernido.

“As of now, the owners of these platforms say that they’re not liable for the content or for whatever we can find on their platforms. I think that is not right. They are giving platforms to these people, to these pedophiles, to these traffickers,” he stressed.

“In a way, they’re making possible the abuse, the trafficking of children. And because they’re making that possible, they have to be made accountable for that,” he added.

Bernido also pointed out that ISPs have been mandated to install software that would block child pornography under RA No. 9775. 

Section 9 of the law states that all ISPs “shall install available technology, program or software to ensure that access to or transmittal of any form of child pornography will be blocked or filtered.”

But for Preda, ISPs have “failed” its mandate. Bernido said that part of Preda’s lobbying activities for the national government is to enact a law that will make the social media platform responsible for the content posted on their platforms.

“I think the government [has] to be more serious in implementing that provision of the law and hold to account these internet service providers,” Bernido said.

Nolasco, meanwhile, said the NBI has been coordinating with the social media platforms for their operations, especially if they would need some contents to be reserved.

“Syempre, yung batas natin is very new na tina-try pa namin makuha yung cooperation nila as much as possible,” she said.

The government would be left with no choice but to use the law against them should these platforms become uncooperative with the authorities, the NBI-AHTRAD chief added.

Establish children’s court

In 2018, Preda won 18 court cases against abusers and exploiters. This was followed by 20 convictions in 2019, 18 in 2020 despite delays in the proceedings due to the pandemic, 10 in 2021, 21 in 2022, and 9 convictions as of May 2023. 

While the foundation is thankful for the passage of laws that will protect the children, Preda believes that there is a need to establish a children’s court, which will specifically hear cases involving young individuals.

The country currently has family courts that handle cases involving children’s abuse. It also deals with other cases such as violence against women, adoption, and annulment. 

With all these, Bernido said it takes at least two years on average in the past years for the legal cases against rapists, pedophiles, and traffickers to be promulgated.

Nolasco, however, said that there’s no way they can expedite the cases filed in the court.

“Yung 2021, masyado pang normal na takbo ng mga kaso dito, masyado pang bago yan kung tutuusin,” she said.

According to Bernido, such delay can cause witness fatigue to the children. If the victims haven’t testified yet after two years, he stressed that there is a tendency that the victims would be easily influenced by their abusers to just withdraw the charges, given that most of them come from very poor backgrounds.

“The most important evidence [is] the children and their testimonies. So without the children, we cannot have a successful prosecution. We have to make sure that they are empowered and they’re able to testify in court and tell their story,” Bernido said.

But with multiple charges filed against them, the perpetrators in OSAEC cases chose to admit their crimes to lessen their offense or reduce their criminal sentence, Nolasco said.

“Siguro effective na rin ang batas natin sa sobrang taas ng penalty mag-plead guilty na lang. Siguro nakokonsensya na rin sila, considering na usually ang perpetrator nga ay magulang o kamag-anak,” she said.

Preda hopes that the children’s court would expedite the cases filed by the minors against their abusers so they can attain justice a lot faster.

This idea would be brought up to a round table discussion that Preda would arrange with officials from the executive branch, particularly from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), and a few legislators.

Emotional release therapy

Before the children appear in court, Preda gives them a complete array of recovery services. At the core of it is the emotional release therapy that Cullen introduced in 1976. 

Based on Primal Theory, this psychotherapeutic practice allows children to release their anger, pain, and suffering brought about by the abuse through shouting, screaming, crying, and hitting the cushions that surround the soundproofed therapy room. They are joined by their therapists and social workers in the closed room. 

Emotional release therapy helps these children to build confidence and have a resolve to fight their abuser in court, Cullen said.

“That’s why we [go] through our therapy. We are very successful in winning court cases because the children are able to testify directly without fear or crying or breaking down. They can tell it straight to the judge, and they are believed, and we win conviction,” Cullen emphasized.

There are also other programs surrounding emotional release therapy. 

Preda has life testimony of each child where they share their stories with one another, group dynamics that help them as a community, and formal education where some kids attend school, while others do academic modules inside the therapeutic home.

In its 2022 DSWD report, Preda recorded a total of 134 children who received the complete set of its recovery services. Of this number, 51 were supported to continue their formal schooling for school year 2022-2022 and 61 children for school year 2022-2023. A total of 85 girls attended vocational-technical lessons on cookery and baking. 

All of them, except one baby survivor, received psychosocial and therapeutic interventions at the Preda home.

Fight against OSAEC continues

CyberGuardians PH has been reaching out to various local government units (LGUs) to implement the ASEAN Cybersecurity Skilling Program in their respective jurisdictions. This program aims to combat cybercrimes such as OSAEC.

The organization has already partnered with Pasig City in November 2022.

Mananzan shared that they partnered with ASEAN and Microsoft for the program, which gave cybersecurity to their 40 volunteers. These volunteers would have to train another batch of 40 volunteers for the program to expand the organization’s reach.

“That is a very technical thing, pero kailangan – kasi cyber na eh. So how do you protect yourself? Ayun, pinag-aralan nila yun,” she said.

Aside from this, CyberGuardians PH also plans to have its module of counseling to be led by Father Teodulo Gonzales. There are no concrete plans for this yet but Mananzan said that the organization will conduct a survey to know what intervention would be effective and not effective for the counseling.

Another plan is to build its own refuge house where victims can stay until they are 18 years old.

“Wala pang ganon eh. Sana may magdonate sa amin ng lupa, tapos magpapalagay kami ng isang established na talagang nandoon ang mga bata,” Mananzan said.



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