An investigation by the Associated Press has found that sexual abuse is a pervasive and longstanding problem at madrassas, religious schools, in Pakistan.
But in a culture where clerics are powerful and sexual abuse is a taboo subject, it is seldom discussed or even acknowledged in public, the report says.
The AP investigation found that sexual abuse is even more seldom prosecuted and that police are often paid off not to pursue justice against clerics, victims' families claim.
Cases rarely make it to the courts, because Pakistan's legal system allows the victim's family to "forgive" the offender and accept what is often referred to as "blood money," AP reported.
The AP investigation has found scores of reported cases of sex abuse within a far-reaching system that teaches more than two million children in Pakistan.
The investigation was based on police documents and dozens of interviews with victims, relatives, former and current ministers, aid groups and religious officials.
Kausar Parveen struggles through tears as she remembers the night her nine-year-old son was raped by a cleric, the report says.
"It is only because of Allah that my son is alive, what if he had died?" asked Parveen as quoted by the AP report.
The boy had studied for a year at a nearby madrassa in the town of Kehrore Pakka. In the blistering heat of late April, in the two-room Islamic school, he awoke one night to find his teacher lying beside him.
"I was crying, he was hurting me. He shoved my shirt in my mouth. I wept the whole night. In morning, my class-fellows received calls from their parents (after the boy told his classmates, some of whom were his cousins, what had happened. They then informed their parents). I told them, call my parents and tell my mother pull me out from here," the nine-year-old rape victim, son of Kausar Parveen (name withheld), was quoted as saying in the report.
The secrecy and shame around sexual abuse means that numbers are hard to come by. A tally of cases reported in newspapers over the past 10 years of sexual abuse by maulavis, or clerics and other religious officials, came to 359.
AP reported that the fear of clerics and militant religious organizations that sometimes support them, suppresses further reporting of abuse.
Pakistan's clerics close ranks when the madrassa system is too closely scrutinized, said one senior ministry official who wished to remain anonymous.
Among the weapons they use to frighten their critics is a controversial blasphemy law that carries a death penalty in the case of a conviction.
AP stated that the Interior Ministry, which oversees madrassas, refused repeated written and telephone requests for an interview.
The man accused of raping Parveen's nine-year-old son swore his innocence as he waited to go before a judge. "I am married for the last six to seven years. My wife is pretty," he said. "Why would I do this to a child?" He had withdrawn an earlier admission of guilt made to the police.
The victim's mother vowed that she would never give up the struggle, but in the end she did. According to police, she "forgave" the cleric, accepted the equivalent of $300 USD and he was set free.
There are more than 22,000 registered madrassas or Islamic schools in Pakistan. The students they teach are often among the country's poorest, who receive food and an education for free.
According to AP, there is no central religious authority that governs madrassas. There is also no central body that investigates or responds to allegations in religious schools.
“The big problem is here that the police don't help the poor. Police ask the victim, "give us money, then we will register your case,"" said Azam Hussain, a local councillor.
The family of a boy who says he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a cleric in a Punjab madrassa talks about their tussle with police.
AP reported that the boy isn't sure of his age. Maybe 10 or 11, he says. He says the cleric threatened him with death if he told anyone. "I was scared. He told me if I told anyone - my brother, my family - he would kill them all, he will hang me."
Local police deny charges that they favoured the cleric, or intimidated the family.
They say they have consulted a local Islamic scholar about the rape allegations, and that the madrassa has not come to their attention previously for any wrongdoing.
"Intent ingredients (elements) of the section of the law demand eyewitnesses", pointed out Sajjad Mohammed Khan, Vehari's deputy superintendent of police.
Those eyewitnesses are unlikely to be forthcoming, reported AP.