The chief of a village where 11 boys were allegedly molested by a Cambodian-American man said on Tuesday that many local boys, including his son, had spent time unsupervised with the man, who was charged on Monday with procuring child prostitution.
While the chief’s son said he was not touched inappropriately at the pagoda in Takeo province where the accused, Tan Saravuth, resided in a private dwelling, other children said Mr. Saravuth touched their genitals, village chief Long Sreang said on Tuesday.
“In 2014 or 2015, about 20 children were coming to visit his place,” and some told each other at the time that Mr. Saravuth had touched their genitals, Mr. Sreang said.
He said he was unsure how many children were molested in the village about 80 km south of Phnom Penh.
“Their parents knew about it. They thought it was common,” the chief said.
He added that Mr. Saravuth “only played with the kids’ genitals…. It is not like the kids were kidnapped.”
Child protection specialists on Tuesday said child sex offenders often prey on children in rural areas, where they are less likely to get caught because there are fewer services and NGOs and poorly trained police.
“Usually there are less ‘eyes on the ground’ there,” said Maggie Eno, co-founder and director of the Sihanoukville-based child protection organization M’Lop Tapang. “It is easy to build trust with someone who is hungry, in debt and has few choices to get out of a difficult life.”
Mr. Saravuth was arrested on Friday in Phnom Penh. Authorities had been investigating him for suspected child sexual abuse and exploitation since the middle of last year, officials and anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE) said on Monday.
Suth Bunthorn, director of the provincial anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection bureau, said on Monday that the suspect had confessed to molesting the boys. The family of one of the boys filed a police complaint in December, he said.
The alleged victims included 11 boys aged 10 to 15 years old from Takeo’s Tram Kak district, where Mr. Saravuth had lived, said APLE, which assisted in the official investigation.
The suspect returned to Cambodia from the U.S. in 1997 and had been living in the province since around 2002, police said. He told police he was arrested in the U.S. for molesting underage boys and jailed for one month.
Police said Mr. Saravuth was born in Cambodia but immigrated to the U.S. as a refugee in the early 1980s, the Associated Press reported. His age has been given as 47, in his Cambodian ID card, and 57, in his U.S. passport.
Mech Sarun, Mr. Sreang’s wife, said their son, now 12, spent time with Mr. Saravuth when the boy was about 8 or 9 years old. Mr. Saravuth took some children on overnight trips to a Phnom Penh hotel without their parents, she said.
“I already asked two or three kids, did [he] hurt or rape you? The kids replied, ‘No, you just heard a rumor’…. The kids just replied: ‘Uncle just kissed and hugged us when we were hanging out at the pagoda, nothing else.’”
Mr. Saravuth gave the children mobile phones, bicycles and clothing, she said. The procurement charge apparently relates to gifts that he allegedly gave the children.
“He likes kids who have no parents,” Ms. Sarun said. “In general, he likes kids.”
Tan Sareoun, a 75-year-old achar, or lay priest, at Wat Odom Seila, where Mr. Saravuth was living and the alleged abuse took place, said the suspect “mostly hung out with young boys.”
Khoem Vando, APLE’s program director, said many villagers believe only rape counts as sexual abuse and few see boys as possible victims.
“They don’t even understand that sexual abuse is [also] kinds of touching, molestation,” he said. “Historically, when we talk about sexual abuse, some people only believe it happens to girls.”
APLE trains community leaders, including village and commune chiefs, NGO workers and local volunteers, to identify sexual abuse and pedophile child-grooming techniques in their communities, Mr. Vando said.
He said the NGO led a couple of trainings in Takeo province last year, but was unsure if any had been held in Tram Kak district.
“Most kids [who are abused] come from poor and less-educated families,” Mr. Vando said. “Some may let it go because they don’t understand that it will be traumatizing for them.”