The struggling boy nervously sent the message. Sunan’s family was part of a deeply religious farming community. Like many others in the area, his family was poor. The slightest change in the weather could devastate a harvest; subtle shifts in the economy could have profound implications for crop values.

It hadn’t been a good year for his family.

Sunan decided to message his local spiritual leader for help. As the two began to communicate, the boy poured out his financial struggles, asking the monk for guidance. 

Beyond giving advice, the monk had great news for Sunan: he had a job for him! The monk invited him to act as his personal driver, allowing the child a chance to earn some much-needed income. Thrilled at the opportunity, the boy accepted.

That’s when the exploitation started.

Thailand has the 2nd largest number of children exploited online

“We’ve got a job.”

Caleb got a call from a rural police force our team had worked with in the past. They had reports that local kids were being exploited online….

It made for an odd case. Our OSEC (online sexual exploitation of children) rescue team is accustomed to dealing with complex cases involving online child sexual abuse material (CSAM), often being shared on encrypted networks by organised crime syndicates. Both traffickers and children tend to live in urban environments, and the kids were often from more impoverished sections of the city.

This was different. The setting was a rural farming community in Thailand’s “breadbasket” region—verdant valleys brimming with small farms that were home to deeply religious families. The disparate backdrop concealed a similarity to trafficking victims in the city, however. Many of these poor farms teetered on the edge of desperate poverty.

But the biggest difference for Caleb’s team was the perpetrator. Police reported that they suspected a Buddhist monk, cloistered in a nearby temple with other adherents, was using his position to exploit local kids, disseminating their abuse online to others. 

Caleb and the Scientia Program’s team got to work with local police, combing through data to build a case against the monk. After days of painstaking work, they assembled enough evidence to earn a search warrant. They’d need to enter the monk’s private cell inside the temple to execute the judge’s order.

Arrest in a temple

When the day of the raid finally came, the team approached the temple compound. Caleb was struck by the serenity of the rural place of worship, so different from the where he normally tracked down traffickers: “This simple, minimalist, peaceful environment was a stark contrast to the high-tech damage that this individual had caused to children in his community.”

The police explain the charges and search warrant to the monk

The police explain the charges and search warrant to the monk

Caleb was impressed with the officers’ cultural sensitivity. Rather than callously barging in, they entered the temple grounds respectfully. Some of the Buddhist policemen knelt to pay homage upon entering. 

Once inside the temple compound, officers removed the suspect from his personal hut and confiscated his devices. 

monk seated at computer
Officers confiscate the suspect’s devices

Our team then helped police conduct an “onsite preview” in which they quickly examined his computer and phones for signs of suspicious activity. It didn’t take long: moments after logging in to his devices, our team found an alarming amount of CSAM.

But there was one thing left to do before making the arrest. Officers brought the accused out into the main temple before the lead abbot, or Phra Ajahn. “The senior monk sat before him as the disgraced monk bowed to him,” recalled Caleb. “The Phra Ajahn ordered the offender to de-robe from his Kāṣāya (traditional monk clothing), removing his privileges and titles.” 

This was an important step in the arrest. 


The abbott defrocks the suspect

The abbott defrocks the suspect

Monks in Thailand enjoy a special legal status called “sangha,” which technically separates them from the state. By removing the abuser’s status, the abbot not only demonstrated the temple’s condemnation of his behaviour, but also eased the prosecution process. The trafficker was arrested as a normal citizen and escorted out of the temple. 

A monster in monk’s robes

Back at headquarters, police asked our team to help them determine the extent of the man’s crimes. What they found shocked everyone.

“He had 75 gigabytes of child abuse material on his phones,” Caleb said. “We saw private chats of young Thai kids that were reaching out to a monk for a little bit of spiritual guidance or some life guidance. And he was grooming them.” 

The abuser would develop relationships with the children, worming his way into their hearts and using his position to manipulate them. After getting to know them, he’d invite the kids to come do chores for him. It’s likely that he led them to believe that helping a monk would increase their karma, improving their fortune in this life or the next. 

In reality, he was simply using it as a means to sexually abuse the children. “It was a massive breach of ethical trust between a religious leader and vulnerable kids,” Caleb said.

But the ex-monk’s crimes went far beyond exploiting local kids who reached out to him for spiritual guidance. “He was making money from the exploitation,” Caleb explained. “He was actually the leader of an organised criminal group (that distributed) child abuse material.” 

For a fee, abusers could purchase membership into the group, gaining access to horrific child abuse videos and images.

The sheer number of children portrayed was daunting, but the team was able to identify the most recent victims fairly quickly. Once they revealed five of the kids’ names, local officers went to work: “The police were amazing… and actually managed to identify one hundred percent of these children.”


We're grateful for the willingness and dedication of governments like Thailand's who are partnering with us to take intentional action to help fight against this exponentially growing crime

We’re grateful for the willingness and dedication of governments like Thailand’s who are partnering with us to take intentional action to help fight against this exponentially growing crime

Those kids are getting the help they need, but many, many more still suffer in the shadows. Caleb talked about the difficult road ahead: “But with the quantity of data that there was, there’s going to have to be a massive amount of work and analysis to identify further victims.”

Right now, only Caleb and one other Scientia team member specialise in victim identification, and this isn’t the only case on their schedule. The task is immense, but the rewards are worth the effort. The five children our team identified are beginning a new, brighter chapter in their lives. Will you help us bring the light of freedom to more children?

Fill out the form below to rescue a child today.

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