An investigation by Associated Press revealed that child sexual abuse in madrassas or religious schools in Pakistan is endemic as it found dozens of police reports, known here as First Information Reports, alleging sexual harassment, rape and physical abuse by Islamic clerics throughout the country.
The AP also documented cases of abuse through interviews with law enforcement officials, abuse victims and their parents.
There are more than 22,000 registered madrassas in Pakistan, teaching more than 2 million children. But there are many more religious schools that are unregistered. They are typically started by a local cleric in a poor neighbourhood, attracting students with a promise of a meal and free lodging.
There is no central body of clerics that governs madrassas. Nor is there a central authority that can investigate or respond to allegations of abuse by clerics, unlike the Catholic Church, which has a clear hierarchy topped by the Vatican.
Police said the problem of sexual abuse of children by clerics is pervasive and the scores of police reports they have received are just the tip of the iceberg. Yet despite the dozens of reports, none have resulted in the conviction of a cleric.
Religious clerics are a powerful group in Pakistan and they close ranks when allegations of abuse are brought against one of them. They have been able to hide the widespread abuse by accusing victims of blasphemy or defamation of Islam.
Families in Pakistan are often coerced into “forgiving” clerics, said Deputy Police Superintendent Sadiq Baloch, speaking in his office in the country’s northwest, toward the border with Afghanistan.
Overcome by shame and fear that the stigma of being sexually abused will follow a child into adulthood, families choose instead to drop the charges, he said. Most often, when a family forgives the cleric the investigation ends because the charges are dropped.
“It is the hypocrisy of some of these mullahs, who wear the long beard and take on the cloak of piety only to do these horrible acts behind closed doors, while openly they criticize those who are clean shaven, who are liberal and open minded,” Baloch said. “In our society so many of these men, who say they are religious, are involved in these immoral activities.”
Police officials say they have no idea how many children are abused by religious clerics in Pakistan. The officials said clerics often target young boys who have not yet reached puberty in part because of the restrictive nature of Pakistan’s still mostly conservative society, where male interaction with girls and women is unacceptable. The clerics for the most part had access to and trust with boys, who are less likely to report a sexual assault.
Young boys are not the only victims of sexual abuse by religious clerics. Many young girls have also been targeted by religious leaders.
The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised to modernize the curriculum and make the madrassas more accountable, but there is little oversight. (Source: Mainichi Japan)