From teenagers and nuns to a tourist accusing priests of rape, the Indian clergy, like the Roman Catholic Church globally, has been tainted by scandal.
Bengaluru: The sex abuse scandal that has engulfed the Roman Catholic Church globally has not left its Indian arm untouched, as laid bare by the allegations of repeated rape against Jalandhar bishop Franco Mulakkal of Kerala.
Just last month, the Supreme Court had expressed shock over the growing number of sexual abuse complaints against priests in Kerala, which has the largest number of Christians in India (comprising Catholics and other schools).
The allegations against the Catholic clergy, who enter the church with a vow of celibacy and are known to wield immense influence on devotees, have dented the image of the institution, especially in the West, where the whole system conspired at times to keep the abuse under wraps for decades.
In India, recent allegations have also involved other schools of Christianity.
The first such high-profile case in recent times came with the conviction of Catholic priest Edwin Figarez for raping a 14-year-old girl of his parish in December 2016. Figarez was the vicar of the Lourdes Matha Church in the Kottapuram diocese.
According to the victim’s mother, the priest sexually assaulted her when she went to him for confession and continued to do so.
The abuse came to light after the teenager came clean to a teacher who asked her about a sudden change in behaviour. A medical exam subsequently confirmed sexual assault. The accused initially went into hiding, but surrendered after his brothers were arrested and charged with conspiracy. Figarez was given a double life sentence.
Two months after Figarez’s conviction, Robin Vadakkancheril, the vicar of St Sebastian’s Church in Kottiyoor, was arrested in February 2017, for allegedly raping a minor. Police say the girl was raped several times before she got pregnant and delivered a child. In his confession, Vadakkancheril reportedly said he abused the girl on the church premises.
Blaming the victim
After the case came to light, Father Paul Thelekat of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council labelled the rapes a result of “consumerism”.
“Women are presented as commodity both in media and in advertisements and all commodities as marketed with girls and women where human body is dehumanised,” he had said.
In an editorial, Malayalam magazine Sunday Shalom sought to place the blame on the victim, asking why she had not stopped the priest.
“Daughter, why did you forget who a priest is? He has a human body and has temptations. He may have forgotten his position for a few seconds, my child who has taken the Holy Communion, why didn’t you stop or correct him?” it wrote.
In February this year, Catholic priest Thanninikkumthadathil Thomas of the Pala diocese in Kottayam was arrested for allegedly raping a British-Bangladeshi woman. The accused was the vicar of St Mathew’s Church.
In her complaint, the victim said she had met the priest through Facebook. She alleged that when she arrived in Kottayam for a week-long trip, the priest raped her. According to her, on a second trip, Thomas robbed her of her gold jewellery, mobile phone and £1,300.
In July, a schoolteacher said four priests of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church sexually assaulted her for several years. In her statement, she claimed they used her confession about a premarital affair to blackmail her.
The same month, a 39-year-old woman from Kayamkulam, Alappuzha, accused another priest from the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church of raping her in 2014. She alleged that at the time of the incident, the accused, Binu George, served as the vicar at St Mary’s Orthodox Church.
According to the victim, the accused called her to his office on the pretext of discussing some family matter and raped her.
Bishop alleges vendetta
The latest is the one involving Mulakkal, who is currently a bishop in Jalandhar. Mulakkal is accused of raping a 44-year-old nun. Roman Catholic nuns are bound by a vow of celibacy too.
The nun has accused Mulakkal of raping her and subjecting her to unnatural sex 13 times between 2014 and 2016 at a convent in Kerala. She has also alleged that the church ignored her complaints, which is why she approached police.
Mulakkal has described the allegations as “vendetta” for action taken against the nun over a suspected affair with a married man.
As calls for the higher church authorities to step in rise, the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), an association of Indian bishops, has issued a statement saying they had no jurisdiction on issues involving individual bishops.
They have said that they expect the law to take its own course, adding that the church authorities will step in after police file a “definitive report”.
“Silence should in no way be construed as siding with either of the two parties,” wrote Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, the secretary general of the CBCI.
Shyju Anthony of Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency, which aims to make the church more transparent, has made it clear that the protest by nuns in Kerala against crime targeting women will continue.
“We will not rest till justice is delivered in all the cases,” he told The Print.