Children are allegedly being sexually abused on a remote Filipino island at the hands of a doomsday cult headed by a leader who claims to be a reincarnation of Jesus.
Save the Children has urged the Filipino government to take immediate action to free the estimated 1,500 children allegedly held by Socorro Bayanihan Services within a heavily guarded enclave on one of the archipelago’s southern islands, close to an internationally renowned surfing spot.
The group was originally a civic organisation. But according to politicians it morphed into an exploitative, quasi-religious cult known as Omega de Salonera in 2017 – and used a powerful earthquake two years later to lure people into the mountains under the threat of eternal damnation.
There, the cult’s leaders were able to escape scrutiny and commit “monstrous” abuses while running a covert drugs operation protected by a private army, according to Filipino lawmakers.
The group reportedly has at least 3,500 members and is led by Jey Rence B Quilario, who is referred to as “The Messiah”.
In a speech on Monday, the chairman of the senate committee on women and children used congressional privilege to accuse Mr Quilario and his close associates of widespread exploitation and demand action from the country’s government.
“This is a harrowing story of rape, sexual violence, child abuse, forced marriage perpetrated on minors by a cult in the municipality of Socorro, Surigao del Norte,” Senator Risa Hontiveros said.
“We are talking about over a thousand young people in the hands of a deceitful, cruel, and abusive cult… real children are in danger, and time is of the essence. We cannot, we must not, look away.”
Fellow senator Ronald Dela Rosa, meanwhile, accused the group’s leaders of using cult members as “human shields” to avoid prosecution for drug trafficking and demanded an immediate probe into their activities.
He said he had received reports the group was running a methamphetamine laboratory from an underground bunker situated close to the so-called “White House”, where Mr Quilario and fellow leaders live.
Mr Dela Rosa said the laboratory was guarded by a private army cultivated by the group, which he claimed received support from a local extremist group.
Echoing the senators’ calls for action, Save the Children on Friday urged authorities to protect minors exposed to “horrific violence”.
“We urgently call upon the government, specifically our law enforcement agencies, to conduct immediate and thorough investigations into these incidents, secure the protection of the affected children, and bring the perpetrators to justice,” said Alberto Muyot, chief executive of the organisation’s Philippines branch.
Allegations of rape
Senator Hontiveros cited testimony from children and adults who have recently escaped, including a 15-year-old given the pseudonym Chloe. She alleged that the cult’s leader forced her into a marriage with a 21-year-old man when she was just 13.
Chloe said that on several occasions, Mr Quilario locked her in a room with her new husband and forced her to have sex, telling her spouse “he had the right to rape her” because they were married.
In the speech, Senator Hontiveros also accused Mr Quilario of raping children himself. She added that he prevented minors from attending school, demanded up to 60 per cent of member’s pensions and welfare payments, and smuggled drugs to earn money.
Senator Dela Rosa said he had been informed by local authorities that young girls trapped within the cult were forced to have sex with Mr Quilario before being married at the age of 12.
Other testimony from Anna Fionah L. Bojos, a member of the Cebu for Human Rights NGO who visited the region in 2023, documented alleged forced labour with children forced to haul sand and rocks eventually used to build a swimming pool and basketball court.
“Although the cult said it was voluntary labour on their part, they were actually monitored and disciplined for failure to do work,” Ms Bojos said in an opinion piece for The Philippine Star newspaper.
She alleged that children were physically assaulted if their work was deemed unsatisfactory, and in some cases sent to “foxholes” for up to a week of solitary confinement.
“Children were [also] required to do ‘masi-masi’ every day. These are physical exercises where they jog with a heavy sack filled with rocks, undergo obstacle challenges, firearm and bladed weapons handling, learn martial arts, swim, and crawl in the mud full of waste and urine,” Ms Bojos said.
More former cult members testify
Socorro Bayanihan Services has categorically denied all of the accusations, and claimed the children cited had been taught to “fabricate” their stories.
But the accusations have dominated headlines in the Philippines this week, and Senator Hontiveros said more former cult members have come forward since the speech, including Karl – a 28-year-old former member of the Agila Squad, which is alleged to be the armed wing of Socorro Bayanihan Services.
He reportedly claimed that the squad had more than 100 members, including children as young as 12, and they underwent combat training in the belief that they were “soldiers of God” with a divine mission.
There are mounting concerns that eight children who escaped this summer are at risk of being lured back into the mountains, Save the Children warned.
“Time is of the essence and we fear that there could be more affected children who are unaccounted for and whose lives and futures are at risk,” said Mr Muyot.
Mr Muyot added that recently introduced laws must be rigorously enforced.
“Our work to protect children doesn’t end with the passage of laws; it begins there. It is of utmost importance that laws around protecting children from abuse and early marriage are not merely words on paper but are instead, rigorously implemented and enforced,” he said.