PETALING JAYA - Kembara Kitchen founder William Cheah felt something was amiss when a 14-year-old soup kitchen volunteer told him she did not want to work with a specific 36-year-old male volunteer.
After some prodding, the girl showed Cheah Facebook messages from the man calling her his “little sister” and “princess”, and repeatedly asking to meet her in person.
She was not the first teenage girl he had contacted.
In another message involving a 19-year-old volunteer, the man repeatedly asked to meet the girl despite her numerous objections.
Yesterday, Cheah exposed the man’s inappropriate messages on Facebook and within a few hours, at least 10 women stepped forward revealing that they had been harassed by the same man for over 15 years, going as far back as 2003.
The Star learnt that the man did not only target girls in charitable organisations, he also approached girls in churches and schools.
“Never did I expect an adult regular volunteer, known in the activist community, to behave in such a manner,” Cheah said.
For him, the last straw was learning that several NGOs and churches allegedly knew of his actions but had kept silent.
“It seems that so many had encountered him before, but all of them kept quiet. NGOs already knew of his behaviour, but did not inform the rest of us in the community,” Cheah said.
Prior to joining Kembara Kitchen, the man volunteered in Mustard Seed Soup Kitchen for a year.
In July this year, he was asked to leave after a 16-year-old volunteer lodged a complaint against his inappropriate behaviour.
After the issue went viral on social media, The New Covenant Church (TNCC) released a statement saying the man – a churchgoer – is now no longer allowed in its congregation until further notice.
TNCC said it first learnt of his inappropriate behaviour two years ago and had taken efforts to help him.
“We do not condone such behaviour and are disappointed that all our past warnings, counsel and advice to him have fallen on deaf ears.
“We had unanimously decided to warn our members against the individual’s behaviour,” it said.
It added that the man was previously banned from being involved in any church ministries.
“We will not hesitate to take further stern action as and when deemed necessary,” it said.
A former youth leader with another church the man grew up in said he was known to be “overly persistent” in his approach with girls.
He said in the early 2000s, when the man was in his early 20s, he kept approaching 14-year-old girls.
The youth leader, who declined to be named, said the church took steps to warn the girls and keep the man in check.
A churchgoer, who declined to be named, said the man harassed her sister after meeting her at Christian Fellowship in school when she was in Form Four in 2003.
But they did not lodge any police report as no crime was committed.
Child sexual grooming was not a crime in Malaysia until July 10, 2017, when the Sexual Offences Against Children Act (SOAC) came into effect.
Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Hannah Yeoh urged organisations to lodge police reports against such suspicious characters.
“Every NGO home and church group, including cell, connect or life groups, should be cautious of such characters targeting young people. Do not be naive,” she said.
Lawyer Srividhiya Ganapathy said the SOAC stipulates that any person who is aware that an offence is being committed is obliged to lodge a report at the nearest police station.
Section 19 states that failure to give information on the commission of or the intention of any person to commit any offence under the Act is liable to a fine not exceeding RM5,000.
The issue has sparked discussions on whether NGOs should screen volunteers.
Cheah said there was a stigma where organisations did not want others to find out that there was something imperfect within their community work, which would deter people from joining the organisation.
He said this particular case was sensitive as the man was actively involved in community work that gave him access to vulnerable groups.
“It’s an awkward and nasty situation for all of us, especially since he’s someone we all know personally,” he said.
Food Aid Foundation director of operations Hayati Ismail urged NGOs to conduct a background check on their volunteers, especially on those working with young children.
The man, who is an executive with a building managing company, deactivated his Facebook profile when Cheah’s exposé went viral.