MANILA — Members of an alleged Surigao del Norte-based cult believe their leader had supernatural powers, including making the rain stop and causing birds to sing, a former member of the group said Monday.
Lovely Savandal, ex-member of the alleged cult Socorro Bayanihan Services, Inc., said she had been a member of the group along with her parents and siblings since birth.
She said SBSI members personally believed that Jey Rence Quilario, otherwise known as Senior Agila, was a "reincarnated Sto. Niño" or Child Jesus and that he was a new Messiah who could perform miracles.
"Pinatigil niya 'yung ulan...May langgam kakanta tapos boses nga ng ibon 'yung kanta," she said in a TeleRadyo Serbisyo interview.
SBSI members were told to sell their homes and join the SBSI enclave in Sitio Kapihan. Savandal said that after selling her house, she had to give 40 percent of the total sale to Quilario while using the rest of the money to build a new home in Sitio Kapihan.
She said the group would sometimes have worship services at 3 a.m. where members would recite the group's rules as well as passages from a book of legends written by Quilario.
The book also had warnings that SBSI members would go to hell if they did not follow Quilario's instructions.
Savandal said her husband, who was also a member of SBSI, earned an income through fishing, with a portion of the sales going back to the group. However, Senior Agila allegedly ordered Savandal's husband to stop selling the fish and just give all his catch to Quilario so that he could sell it.
She said she protested the setup because one of her children had asthma. "Kailangan namin may pera dahil wala kaming pambili ng gamot," she said.
Savandal said she and her family left SBSI this year due to the alleged abuses of SBSI leaders.
"Wala na kaming bahay kasi ibinenta namin 'yung bahay namin. 'Yung bahay ng parents ko ibinenta rin... Nakakahiya po kasi wala na kaming matirhan," she said, adding she had to seek help from the local government.
In the interview, Savandal said she believed Quilario was being manipulated by SBSI Vice President and ex-Socorro mayor Mamerto Galanida, noting Quilario only finished senior high school.
She said she had doubts about Quilario after noticing that the daily assembly meetings stopped when Galanida fell ill for 2 months.
"Kung Panginoon siya, bakit kailangan pa niyang maghintay kay Mamerto na gumaling para magmi-meeting kami?"
‘ADVISERS’ RUNNING THE SHOW?
Senators Risa Hontiveros and Ronald Dela Rosa both believe Senior Agila is only a figurehead controlled by a group of advisers.
“Lahat ng mga policies, lahat ng mga decision-making ng SBSI ay hindi niya personal na kwan, hindi siya ang nagde-decide kundi ‘yung group o adviser na nasa likod niya na sinusunod niya ang advice,” Dela Rosa told TeleRadyo Serbisyo on Sunday.
“Hindi tayo naniniwala na an organization as big as this ay kino-control ng isang 22 years old na second year high school na lumalabas talaga na medyo kulang, kulang sa kaalaman,” he added.
Hontiveros said both Quilario and Galanida would be liable if proven that they committed crimes, especially against underage members of the group.
Quilario earlier denied that he sanctioned child marriages, formed a private army, and barred children from attending school.
Aside from Galanida, Quilario’s other advisers include businessman Karren Sanico, and Sanico's secretary Janeth Ajoc, who also acts as Senior Aguila’s aide.
Quilario, Sanico and Ajoc are under Senate detention, while Galanida has been brought to the Tondo Medical Center, a Senate source said.
Asked to specify the people he was referring to as those allegedly manipulating Quilario, dela Rosa said: “Kasama na diyan yung apat na nakakulong ngayon sa Senado at meron pang iba na pwedeng mabulgar in the course of our investigation.”
At least four adults and nine children whom SBSI leaders want to testify before the Senate are now under the custody of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), Hontiveros said.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development is evaluating whether three of the minors could face the Senate, she said.
“Dahil dumaan sila sa trauma at kapag pinatestigo sila sa isang Senate hearing na walang sapat at tamang paghahanda, baka ma-retraumatize lamang,” the senator said.
DEAL WITH DENR
The environment department has suspended an accord that allowed the Socorro Bayanihan group to use 353 hectares of protected land.
Ex-member Savandal lauded the agency’s decision, saying she would finally found out where her father was buried in Sitio Kapihan. She said her father died of a tumor in his lungs when SBSI leaders refused to let him seek medical treatment.
"Kailangan niyang maoperahan, mai-admit pero hindi po pumayag 'yung mother ko kasi tinawagan niya si Senior Agila, hindi daw pwede. Siya na lang daw ang gagamot. Pero 'yun na nga, namatay ang tatay ko, hindi naman niya nagamot," she recalled.
"Makukuha ko na po ang bangkay ng ama ko," she added.
— With a report from Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News