Getting married and having children are essential rites of passage in Indonesia. So great is the pressure to produce progeny, that couples unable to conceive children may feel they have failed. This makes them easy prey for con-men posing as religious or alternative healers.
Mimi (40) and Parmin (41) had been trying to have a baby since their marriage in 2009, but without success. Last year, one of Mimi’s friends advised the couple to visit an alternative medicine clinic located at Mangga Dua Square shopping mall in North Jakarta.
The clinic, called Hawa Murni (Pure Air), was opened in January 2013 by a man named Timotius Hengky Santoso (57), who also called himself Romo (Father, as in ‘priest’). Like so many other charlatans posing as healers, he claimed he could cure a range of ailments and help infertile couples achieve pregnancy.
Romo told women they would become pregnant after 14 sessions of his treatment over seven months. Each session cost Rp.300,000, comprising Rp.50,000 for hands-on treatment and Rp.250,000 for 20 capsules of “medicine”. Local media reported that some of the medicine was weight-gain pills intended for cattle. The particular “medicine” for fattening cattle is a steroid called Oradexon, which can also be taken by humans to treat inflammatory and allergic disorders. It has also been dispensed to young prostitutes to make their buttocks and breasts larger.
Mimi commenced the fertility treatment in July 2013. This involved Romo placing his hands on her stomach, claiming he was channelling pure energy into her body. After each session of this mumbo jumbo, Mimi and Parmin were sold the 20 capsules and told to take 10 each.
Women seeking to become pregnant were ordered not to drink iced water and to avoid certain foods, such as tomatoes, chillies, durian, stink beans, jengkol (dogfruit beans) and bananas. The total cost for 14 sessions of Romo’s nonsense was Rp.4.2 million. Some women paid more.
Pademangan Sector Police Chief, Commissioner Andri Ananta, said Romo convinced women they were pregnant by asking them to close their eyes and pray, while he switched their urine samples with urine from women who really were pregnant.
Romo told his patients not to visit proper doctors or hospitals for pregnancy tests or ultrasounds, claiming such examinations would thwart their pregnancy. In her seventh month of “pregnancy”, Mimi defied Romo’s orders and went to a real doctor, who informed her that the weight she had gained was entirely a result of the pills and her diet.
Some other patients also had pregnancy tests and reported Romo to police. He was arrested on February 25. He had no license for practicing medicine. Police said he earned about Rp.18 million per month from his clinic and had duped at least 100 women. He has been charged with fraud and could face four years in jail.
Romo said he learned his “medical skills” from his grandfather. Prior to conning women in Mangga Dua Square, he had a clinic in Jati Bening, Bekasi, for just three months.
One of the victims, Anti (37), said she had spent Rp.20 million on the useless treatments and pills. She was curious about the capsules and had some tested at a laboratory, only to be informed they were for fattening cattle.
Long before Romo’s arrest, one patient blogged in August 2013 that he was a fraud. Later, a group of women posting on ibuhamil.com debated his efficacy. One woman questioned why she still menstruated when Romo had said she was pregnant. By December, most of the women knew he was a fraud, although one still insisted his powers had made her pregnant. Another explained that a foetus can be created only by the will of God.
A 32-year-old victim said Romo told her he could expedite the fertility process if she accompanied him to a hotel room. She refused. Yet she continued to take the “medicine” even though it only affected her appetite and made it difficult for her to speak.
Such fraud is not uncommon in Indonesia, where all sorts of quackery is masqueraded as fertility treatment. One reason that childless couples resort to charlatans is that in-vitro fertilization (IVF), in which conception occurs in a Petri dish, costs Rp.45 million and upward. Couples who can afford IVF treatment generally choose to go to Singapore or further abroad, while those with less money are more likely to rely on the power of prayer or magic potions.