Trail of child brides, sexual abuse, drug trafficking leads to Philippine cult’s ‘baby Jesus’

The Strait Times, Singapore/September 30, 2023

By Raul Dancel

To his thousands of followers living on a remote island in war-torn southern Philippines, Mr Jey Rence Quilario is the reincarnation of “Santo Nino” – the baby Jesus.

But a Senate investigation this week revealed a trail of sexual violence, child brides, paedophilia and drug trafficking that leads back to this self-styled “saviour”.

“This is a harrowing story of rape, sexual violence, child abuse, forced marriage perpetrated on minors by a cult. This cult is armed and dangerous,” Senator Risa Hontiveros said last Monday.

“We are talking about over a thousand young people in the hands of a deceitful, cruel and abusive cult,” she said.

Mr Quilario, only 22 years old, is the leader of the quasi-religious group Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc (SBSI), which has roots in Socorro, an island town in Surigao del Norte province with a population of just over 25,000.

It currently has 3,500 members, including some 1,600 children whom Ms Hontiveros and child rights activists are now trying to save.

Ms Hontiveros, who chairs the Senate committee on women, children, family relations and gender equality, opened an investigation into Mr Quilario after at least eight children managed to escape his mountain enclave in Socorro and provided harrowing accounts of what they allegedly went through.

Chloe, 15, said Mr Quilario forced her to marry a 21-year-old man when she was only 13. She said Mr Quilario then told her husband he “has the right to rape her” because they were already married.

Chloe said she begged her parents to break up her marriage, but they refused, saying it was the will of “the Messiah”.

Ms Hontiveros said Mr Quilario himself would order some of the child brides to sleep with him to be “saved on the day of judgement”, and beat them up if they refused.

“(Cult leaders) would detain them for days inside what they called a ‘foxhole’. They would paddle them. They would force them to swim to what they called ‘aroma beach’, which is a dug-up area filled with faeces and urine,” she said.

At a Senate hearing on Thursday, Jane said she was 14 when Mr Quilario forced her to marry an 18-year-old whom she had never met. Her current age was not reported.

She said Mr Quilario would list down girls as young as 12 and boys aged 18 or older, and pick “pairs approved by God”. Mr Quilario treated his settlement like the biblical Noah’s Ark, said Jane. Everyone must enter in pairs, she said.

Ms Hontiveros said while Mr Quilario fashions himself as the benevolent leader of a civic organisation and a religious group, he sustains his cult via drug trafficking.

He reportedly has a private army of some 150 men and children he calls “Agilas” (eagles), with himself being “Senior Agila”.

Mr Quilario is the son of a farmer. He dropped out of secondary school and spent his teenage years as an apprentice to Ms Rosalina Taruc, who founded SBSI as a civic organisation in 1980.

Ms Taruc designated Mr Quilario as her successor in 2019.

By then, SBSI had moved to a hilltop settlement following a series of earthquakes that hit Surigao del Norte in 2019. It also began morphing into a cult.

Mr Quilario started preaching that the earthquakes were a sign that the world was ending, and that he was the saviour who could provide people with shelter in the mountains of Socorro.

Those who refused to follow him would “burn in hell”, he said.

An exodus to his mountain enclave followed.

When Ms Taruc died in 2021, Mr Quilario assumed leadership of SBSI. He also inherited from her ALT Entertainment, a multimedia production company that has its own radio station in Socorro.

Confronted by his purported victims and the allegations against him at a Senate hearing on Thursday, Mr Quilario could only say: “That’s not true. I didn’t do that.”

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