Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo has come under fire for his controversial remarks that many claim defend the "perpetrator" in a sexual violence case between a boy and girl, both aged five, at a daycare center.
The ministry released a written apology and explanation following the strong criticism, but it did not help ease the outrage. and many people ― especially parents ― are calling for his resignation over the remarks which even sexual violence counselors regarded as inappropriate.
|Health Minister Park Neung-hoo|
According to the mother, her five-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted by a fellow classmate at a state-run daycare center in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, with the boy pulling down her pants and penetrating her genitals and anus with his fingers while three other boys watched. The girl claimed such acts took place multiple times for months, and she was diagnosed with vulvovaginitis at an ob/gyn clinic.
The mother expressed grief that the assaulter cannot be punished because he is too young. "The country has no laws to punish a five-year-old and we are sad as parents because we are unable to do anything. We are living in hell each day," she wrote.
The father and some others posted petitions on the Cheong Wa Dae website calling for better protection of child victims of sexual violence, punishment of the perpetrators (if possible) as well as their parents and daycare center staffers who failed to stop the act or attempted to cover it up, and better education for children on sexual violence prevention.
According to the parents, the assaulter's family acknowledged the problem but threatened to take legal action if the victim's parents kept "spreading false information."
During a National Assembly Health and Welfare Committee meeting Monday, the minister said, "It could happen naturally while kids are growing up, but there could be a problem when it is excessively expressed. So I will seek experts' opinions and make a decision."
The remark provoked outrage from the public which accused the minister of siding with the perpetrator and failing to realize the seriousness of the issue.
Later in the day the ministry released a statement claiming the minister was citing experts' opinions on children's growth in general.
"We deeply apologize to the victim, her family and people who were hurt by the minister's remarks," the ministry said in a press release. "The ministry, along with related organizations, will do our best to treat and protect the victim. We will enforce education at daycare centers nationwide to prevent the recurrence of such incidents."
However, the ministry's clarification did not help to calm public anger.
"I can't understand the minister's remarks. I am a mother of a four-year-old son, but what child development process lets a child puts fingers inside a female classmate?" a woman wrote on an online bulletin board.
"The reality is people are outraged as the country is very lenient toward sex crimes," another online commenter wrote.
Lee Hyun-sook, a staffer at a sexual violence counseling center at the children's welfare center Tacteen, said such a thing could happen during a child's developmental process but would be very rare and not natural.
She said although the perpetrator is too young to know about sex, the consequences are extreme. "Adults should not take it lightly, saying it is just something taking place between children," she said in a radio interview. "We might not say it is a crime but it surely is problematic behavior."