Philippines arrests alleged cult leader on suspicion of sex crimes targeting children

Benar News [Washington, DC]

November 7, 2023

By Jeoffrey Maitem

Philippine authorities formally arrested a 22-year-old alleged cult leader and three of his associates Tuesday on suspicion that their organization sexually enslaved children in a remote area in the country’s south.

Jey Rence Quilario (also known as Señor Agila) and his three lieutenants had been detained at the Philippine Senate building since late September after lawmakers held them in contempt for failing to answer questions at a hearing

On Tuesday, the four were transferred into the custody of the National Bureau of Investigation, the Philippines’ equivalent to the FBI in the United States, as well as charged, officials said. Arrest warrants were also out for nine more of Quilario’s lieutenants, according to Philippine news reports. 

“The criminal activities the cult leaders carried out are beyond despicable,” Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who led the related Congressional hearings in September, said in a statement Tuesday. 

“They preyed on the weak, abusing the most vulnerable members of their community, including women, children, and the elderly.”

The Philippine Department of Justice is leading the prosecution against Quilario, who allegedly ran the cult known as Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI).

“The NBI made the arrests after warrants were issued against the leader and other officials of the SBSI,” Nicholas Felix Ty, an undersecretary at the Philippine Justice Department, told a news conference in Manila on Tuesday.

The official did not provide details on the charges filed against the Socorro leader and the other three in custody but said the Socorro leader faced several charges, including nine counts for qualified trafficking in persons, eight for child abuse, and four for facilitation of child marriage.

Hillary Olga Reserva, an attorney representing the suspects, said Quilario had denied all the allegations during the Senate inquiry, adding she had not yet received a copy of the complaint filed by prosecutors.

“[M]y clients will face the charges in court and will avail all the legal remedies they are afforded by the Constitution and the rules of court,” she told reporters.

The Socorro group reportedly rejects the characterization of being a cult and maintains that it’s a community-based organization.

The group’s case attracted nationwide attention after Sen. Hontiveros, who chairs the Senate Committee on Women and Children, announced a Senate investigation in September into alleged child abuse and sexual exploitation caused by Socorro’s leaders. 

During the subsequent hearing, several witnesses told the Senate committee that Quilario had married off minors to the group’s adult members and that minors were locked inside a room until they agreed to have sex.

Hontiveros also said that former members of the cult had told her that the followers who disobeyed Quilario were held against their will in a foxhole, at times filled with human feces.

The Socorro group reportedly claims its members are the followers of the Philippine Independent Church, a Catholic church that has since distanced itself from the group. 

Hontiveros earlier alleged that Quilario was revered by his followers as the “Child Jesus.”

It’s not the first time in recent years that a group with Christian affiliations has come under the spotlight for alleged abuse of children in Asia’s only predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

Apollo Quiboloy, who served as former President Rodrigo Duterte’s spiritual adviser and pastor of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, is sought by U.S. authorities on criminal charges.

In November 2022, a federal grand jury in the United States charged Quiboloy with orchestrating a sex-trafficking operation that coerced girls as young as 12 to have sex with him or risk “eternal damnation.” 

There are also many other Christian sects and groups that exist outside the Catholic Church’s purview, with many operating in hard-to-reach rural areas beyond the control of the national government in Manila.

Froilan Gallardo contributed to this report from Cagayan de Oro, southern Philippines.