CHENNAI: A day after she shared screenshots of sexually inappropriate messages she’d received on social media, Shama* received a call from one of her former teachers. The teacher told her that she had ruined a man's life. The screenshots were of sexually inappropriate messages allegedly sent by two preachers at Scripture Union (SU) to her friends and her.
At least 75 youngsters from around a dozen schools across Tamil Nadu have alleged on social media that the preachers, Samuel Jaisundar and Reuben Clement, had been sending sexually inappropriate messages to girls in the age group of 10-17, asking them for photographs in short skirts and frocks.
Although the inappropriate texting has allegedly gone on for years, it became public only last week, when a youngster collated the screenshots and shared them on Twitter. Yet, despite a massive uproar against the duo online, very few are ready to file a police complaint.
To understand why, The New Indian Express spoke to 12 youngsters, who have been at the centre of the case. However, all of them wanted their identity to be protected. One of them even said, "The anonymity I get is what will empower me to speak about my abuse."
Superficial charm and grooming
Jaisundar, who has worked with SU since 2006, regularly visited schools across Tamil Nadu and conducted Vacation Bible School and summer camps for Bible studies along with his team. "We'd wait in anticipation for SU week and fight with all the other kids in school to meet him. He was funny, caring and silly and we thought we could trust him. He took advantage of that," said a girl, who completed her schooling a couple of years ago.
He also took advantage of the special status that all the children accorded to him, she said, "At first, I was ecstatic at the attention from him. I took it as a sign that I was special. I was very happy to be receiving attention from this person who we all put on a pedestal," she said.
Yet in some of the messages she claimed he sent her he asked her things like: "What do you sleep in? Do you sleep-wearing clothes in the Indian style or the Western style? Some people wear just lingerie, or even nothing at all, what do you do?"
The texts made her feel uncomfortable but she did not tell her parents about it at the time, fearing their anger will be directed at her and not at him. Instead she decided to test the ground with her friends.
"But due to the image he had carefully cultivated over the years, no one believed or listened to me. I was branded a liar, and attention-seeking. I felt guilty," she said, adding that she went off social media for months after that.
Another 25-year-old woman told TNIE that Clement befriended her on social media when she was still a teenager.
"I do not have a father and when I was young I wasn't sure what paternal affection would look
like. So when he showered me with compliments, I did not hesitate to send the pictures he asked for. He would ask for photos of me from certain angles," she said, explaining that she did not understand this to be abuse at the time.
She also feared that she would be blamed for participating in the conversations with him if she told anyone. So she kept silent about these incidents until recently.
When moral policing makes safe spaces unsafe
One of the reasons for the 25-year-old’s fear at the time was her experiences of moral policing at the hands of school staff. She recalled that a teacher from her school in Vellore had harassed her and her male friend for going to eat ice cream. "We were both threatened and intimidated. She spoke to me like I had done something very wrong," she said.
It was the same fear Shama had felt. Her fears were confirmed when she received the call from her former school teacher. The recrimination for “ruining the lives of these innocent preachers by releasing the conversations online” reminded her why she’d held her peace for so long. “Although the teacher dissuaded me from making the issue public, she did not suggest any recourse on how to address the issue,” Shama said. Worse, she claimed the teacher praised Jaisundar and Clement and said the students must have misinterpreted the conversations.
According to Shama, in many of the cultural activities during the SU sessions, humour often took the form of blatant homophobia, sexism and shaming of the #metoo movement. She claimed that children who were confused about their sexuality were forced to undergo "conversion therapy" by Jaisundar.
"How can we officially report the incident in this atmosphere?" she rued, adding that the issue might have never become so public if the school had been a safe and open-minded space to discuss natural biological impulses and threats to personal safety.
Silenced with consequences
Having spoken up online, many of the youngsters said they were facing tremendous pressure from their family and community.
A girl in her late teens, residing in Vellore, said the blame came from her own parents. “They told me that I had "invited the harassment" as I texted him first,” she said.
"They kept saying that I must have done something for him to text me this way. They said that I was humiliating someone who was respected by our community."
Another youngster who shared many of these screenshots on Twitter claimed he was asked by his church to resign from an administrative position he held.
However, when TNIE reached out to the church, a representative said he had resigned voluntarily a year ago and moved to a different city. When TNIE phoned the youngster again, he said he could not comment any further as he feared it would threaten his relationship with his parents.
The Church of South India (CSI) is the parent organisation for the church involved in asking the young man to allegedly resign. A senior representative of the CSI Synod Seva wing told TNIE that he was unaware of the youngster being asked to step down.
A Class 12 student said that teachers from her school told her that she was "putting Christians at risk," by posting the screenshots. While certain sections of social media had used the issue as an opportunity to give a communal colour to it, the bigger fear for the child is of being ostracised. "Both my family and members of my community said they will cut all ties with me if I speak about this in public," she said.
Child protection policy
The Church of South India recently adopted a child protection policy. The policy states: "The institutions of the CSI that deal with the care of children, their safety and welfare will all comply with the guidelines contained in the JJ Act and be governed by both the JJ Act and the POCSO Act in all the matters outlined therein."
Although many of those who have alleged sexual harassment went to schools or institutions run by the CSI, many of these institutions are yet to file a complaint. This raises concerns as to whether they are violating both their own policy as well as the law.
"When faith is their cornerstone and that is being used against them, it will be extremely distressing for victims," said Vidya Reddy of Tulir- Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse.
"Everybody is hassled about the reputation of the institution, not realising it is just one bad apple that may have offended. It is a reflection of the institution when it does not step up to respond effectively to incidents of abuse," she said, adding that a safe school is one that acts proactively to prevent and manage abuse.
“An abuser can be abusing many children. Keeping quiet about it will enable the abuser to abuse many more children without any accountability,” she said.