Written by Tess Bacalla of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
Seventeen-year-old Paul was already resigned to sleep at the guardhouse of Manila Boys Town in Parang, Marikina as part of his punishment for a minor mischief he says he did not commit. But then the officer-in-charge of the facility changed his mind; Paul was to stay at the OIC’s living quarters while the boy was still “under observation.”
Paul took this as an act of kindness from the official. One night, though, he was startled to find the official beside him in bed. In a Dec. 12, 2005 complaint filed with the Division of City Schools in Manila, Paul recounted that the official â€” who the boy said would also barge into the bathroom whenever he was taking a bath â€” molested him.
Paul is not the boy’s real name. The names of all the other Boys Town wards who appear later in this report have also been changed because they are minors. But those of the adults have been retained, including that of Boys Town OIC Daniel Cabangangan, who has been accused by Paul and another ward at the institution of sexual molestation.
Last December, several Boys Town wards also filed complaints of physical abuse committed by a group of male volunteers brought in by Cabangangan from Bulacan, where his family resides.
Since Cabangangan became Boys Town administrator in April 2004, the wards and some personnel of the institution have alerted authorities about the abuse that they say is taking place there. Just last March, four wards filed a complaint with the Marikina police, claiming they were beaten up by some volunteers, with full knowledge and apparently consent of Cabangangan.
Once a haven
Until Cabangangan became its head, Boys Town had enjoyed a reputation as one of the country’s most successful havens for underprivileged youths, a place of refuge and hope for children who otherwise would have bleak futures. Indeed, among its alumni are Naval, Biliran Mayor and former congressman Gerry Espina Sr., film director Francis ‘Jun’ Posadas and former action-film star Dante Varona.
Today that reputation has been marred by wards’ complaints of sexual molestation and physical abuse. Boys Town insiders themselves estimate that some 20 to 30 wards have been mauled by Cabangangan’s men between October 2004 and March 2006.
They also say at least four boys have been sexually molested by Cabangangan, usually after being asked to stay for days or even weeks in his living quarters, although only two so far have submitted written complaints to City Hall. Two more wards have filed complaints of sexual molestation against another staff member and a volunteer.
Numerous wards interviewed, including former Town residents, say it is ironic that such abuses have taken place in an institution set up precisely to care for “abandoned, orphaned, physically abused” children.
Yet save for the Parang, Marikina police, who arrested and briefly detained Cabangangan and the men allegedly involved in the March 3, 2006 beating of four boys, Manila city authorities, who have jurisdiction over Boys Town, have done little in response to the rising number of complaints.
The wards, meanwhile, say they are being bullied into silence. The say that a staffmember sympathetic to them has been transferred while a volunteer close to the children has been relieved. Moreover, they accuse Boys Town management of misusing the institution’s funds and facilities.
Boys Town is supervised by the social welfare department of the government of Manila, one of the five pilot cities covered by the Fifth and Sixth Country Programs for Children of the government and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) to promote children’s rights.
Caring for poor boys
The Town was established in 1947 as a residential care center for Manila’s underprivileged male children, ages eight to 16. Aside from Boys Home, the present Town includes Girls Home (for girls aged three to 16), Home for the Aged (for homeless, abandoned and neglected elderly people aged 60 years and above); and Foundling Home (for younger boys three to seven years old). Most of Town’s young wards come from the poorest communities in Manila whose families are unable to care for them.
Boys Town currently has 510 wards, with the Home for the Aged comprising the biggest number of residents at 236. This is followed by Boys Home, with close to 150 wards. Male and female wards are allowed to stay at the complex until they finish high school.
Boys Town wards are required to study at the Fugoso Memorial School, which offers elementary and secondary education inside the facility. After leaving Boys Town, wards are often referred to sponsors who could help them through college or get vocational training or perhaps provide them jobs.
Ronaldo, 13, says it was partly because of Boys Home OIC Leonila Borja that he and three other boys decided to withdraw the complaint they had filed with the police against Cabangangan and four of his men. The boys have a soft spot for Borja, who they describe as kind to them. According to Ronaldo, Cabangangan told them that if they went through with their complaint, “Ma’am Borja would also get in trouble. She’d be jailed, too.”
Cabangangan, who is in his early 50s, has categorically denied any such abuse has taken place under his watch. “There are no abuses,” he said in an interview.
“Mahal ako ng mga bata (The kids love me),” he said. “Why, they even kiss my hand.” But he said an investigation committee had been formed by Manila’s social welfare department, headed by Dr. Jose L. Baranda, to look into the boys’ accusations.
Baranda has also denied there have been abuses in Boys Town, although he says the investigation is still ongoing. He says the results would be released “this year.” But he hastens to add it could be “next week” or “next month.”
But some Boys Town personnel and the wards’ Fugoso Memorial teachers, whose help has been sought by some of the youngsters, say their stories have remained the same in each retelling. The stories told by the wards in interviews with this reporter also matched those in the written complaints.
“When children report abuse, we believe them â€” and investigate all areas â€” legal, psychosocial-emotional issues, behavioral manifestations of the trauma,” says Anita Pecson, editor of Preventing and Healing Child Sexual Abuse. “The burden is not on the children, it’s on the investigating team. Even if it is not true, it may be a way to ask for help.”
It was in fact not a ward but a veteran Boys Town employee who had first submitted a complaint regarding abuses against children at the complex. The employee, who requests to remain anonymous, still remembers the exact date she saw a bunch of grim-looking children at the entrance of the main Boys Home building: Oct. 31, 2004.
The employee says that in her 24 years as houseparent, guard, and spiritual director in Boys Town, she had never seen children looking so weak and scared inside the complex.
There were at least 12 young boys, she recalls, all of them just hauled in from the streets by Manila police. Like most newly rescued street children, they had tried to escape from the Town â€” for which, they told the staff member, they received a severe beating from a member of the Town staff.
Fear and abuse
“I thought Boys Town was beautiful, but it seems this is a place where we could die,” the employee recounts one of the boys as saying. One by one, she says, they showed her fresh welts and bruises. The boys said they were beaten with a piece of wood, which almost hit one of them in the head. Another boy was hit in the back, making it hard for him to lie down.
The employee, through the Boys Home head, quickly informed Cabangangan of what had happened. But he took no action, she says. The employee then wrote to Baranda, sending him pictures of the badly beaten up youngsters and some of their soiled clothes along with her report. Yet even Baranda “never even called me to his office,” she says.
It was Cabangangan who later summoned her. “Upon seeing me, he said, ‘(You’re) stupid, you’re ignorant, your head is flat!'” says the employee. “Don’t you know the people you wrote to are my kumpadres? You’re defending criminals!”
She says the Town personnel accused of the beatings was Cabangangan’s godson. He was neither investigated nor reprimanded and remains in the institution’s employ. The long-time Town employee has been transferred to the Manila Youth Reception Center.
Several Boys Town insiders say abuses became more frequent after Cabangangan began bringing in young men as volunteers-positions entitling them to an allowance of at least P2,000 a month.
Most of the abuses have been physical assaults, although there has been one complaint of sexual molestation against a volunteer by a teenage ward. The volunteer who allegedly beat up new recruits in October 2004 has also been accused of touching and kissing a 14-year-old female former ward.
Preying on wards
According to Cabangangan, he brought five men in all because the Town had a manpower shortage. Various Town sources confirm the shortage, but talks with them also indicate that Cabangangan brought 15 volunteers who came in at different times. Insiders say these young men take turns sleeping at the official’s quarters, and have been derisively baptized “lollipop boys” behind their backs.
Cabangangan’s quarters have also become infamous for being the site of his alleged sexual molestation of some teenage male wards. Like Paul, 15-year-old Gary says he was molested there by the Town OIC, who even asked him “if I was already circumcised, had a big penis, and if I was still a virgin.”
Summoned to perform reflexology on Cabangangan, the boy says the official’s hand first stroked his leg before moving on to his private parts. In his written complaint, he says he was also asked to sleep in the house, where late that night he suddenly woke up to find a naked Cabangangan beside him.
Boyet, now 18, tells a similar tale, although he has not filed a complaint. Believed by insiders to be one of the first wards to be molested, Boyet â€” who has been released from Boys Town â€” says he had already been sleeping in Cabangangan’s quarters for weeks before he woke up one night to find the Town OIC stroking and kissing him.
“Then it happened,” he says, refusing to elaborate. At the time, he says, not one of the volunteers staying at Cabangangan’s quarters was around. Boyet says the incident happened two more times.
Cabangangan and his volunteers, wards and some Boys Town personnel attest, have also been seen drinking within the Town’s premises, sometimes at Cabangangan’s quarters, other times in a vacant spot beside the administrative office, or near a fighting-cock farm operating inside. Ruben, who is 14 but looks older, says he even used to buy liquor for the men, since he was considered among their “favorites.”
Drinking is prohibited inside Boys Town, a policy that Cabangangan himself acknowledged. But he says drinking is allowed “on special occasions.” Ruben and other wards, though, say drinking takes place even when there is no such occasion.
In any case, there was drinking during the Boys Town Fiesta last March 3, when four wards were severely beaten by the volunteers, while Cabangangan, the boys say, just stood by and watched. The men, as well as Cabangangan, were drunk, they say.
Beatings in the Town
The boys, among them Carlo, 14, and Ronaldo, say they had planned to knock some coconuts off the trees by pelting these with rocks. But the guards accosted them and accused them of sniffing rugby. Marched off to Cabangangan and his men, the boys were next accused of throwing stones at a guard.
In their written statements, which they gave to their Fugoso Memorial teachers, the boys say they were kicked and punched all over by four of Cabangangan’s men. In an interview, Carlo recounted, “I was punched in the head and in the back. I was kicked. They accused us of using rugby. But we didn’t.”
Ronaldo says he was shaking and crying while they were being mauled. The men then took them back to their cottage, all the while still hitting them. When the men left, the boys sneaked out and went to the police.
The Parang police blotter records the boys’ complaint against Cabangangan and his men as one involving violations of R. A. 7610, which protects children against abuse, exploitation and discrimination. Medico-legal certificates issued by Marikina’s Amang Rodriquez Medical Center on March 4 show that the boys’ bodies had hematomas or blood clots.
Fear of reprisal
Insiders say the boys may have dropped their complaint largely because these feared they would be released from Boys Town without due process. Most of the boys want to stay since they not only get free food and lodging, but also free education. Ronaldo, for one, is reluctant to leave, despite all that has happened. He says he still wants to become an electrician, a dream he thinks he may never attain if he goes back to his impoverished family living in Baseco.
Fugoso Memorial officials have endorsed at least two batches of wards’ complaints to City Hall, one of which was addressed to Manila Mayor Jose ‘Lito’ Atienza in January. Atienza was asked about the actions taken by his office, but he has not replied to this reporter’s query. Instead, the query forwarded to the social welfare department, which has also not replied.
When the complaining wards were summoned to City Hall early this year, Fugoso Principal Emerlina Adrales insisted that teachers accompany the youngsters, observing that they were scared of even using the Boys Town vehicle. She told the Town OIC, “The children aren’t leaving without their teachers.”
Unfortunately, the teachers’ presence failed to shield one boy from more harm. Paul says after they were done meeting with the investigating committee, the mayor’s special assistant, Ryan Ponce, spoke to him and another Town ward angrily, accusing them of sniffing solvent.
In a written statement dated Jan. 22, two days after the incident, Paul says that he was dragged into Baranda’s office where he was kicked and punched by Ponce â€” right before the social services head.
“Dr. Baranda could do nothing but to hand me a piece of tissue,” Paul says in his statement. He also says Baranda told him, “Ikaw kasi, rugby ka ng rugby (It’s your fault for using rugby).”
The battered lad says he broke down and cried. But in an interview, Baranda only repeatedly denied any abuses and refused to entertain more specific questions. (Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism)