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Kerala Church Scandal – urgent need for reform or motivated allegations?

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After allegations of land scams, the Kerala Church is now under fire for sexual exploitation of nuns and members.

In Kottayam, a nun has filed a complaint alleging sexual abuse by a Catholic bishop, and another woman parishioner in Pathanamthitta alleged that she was sexually harassed by four priests.

ThePrint asks: Kerala Church Scandal – urgent need for reform or motivated allegations?

Churches need to reckon with advances in gender discourse & consciousness

John Dayal
Former national president, All India Catholic Union

Two decades into the 21st century, it is clear that all religions, their institutions and their governance structures need reforms, and rather urgently. They need to reckon with the advances in the gender discourse and consciousness. They need to face the growing challenges of a secular world, the economic crisis, and the sharp decline in vocation.

The Church, for instance, needs to find men and women to join it as priests and nun. Religious institutions must be able to re-evaluate their role, and remember that they perform an important role in the life of a common person in search for solace, happiness and peace.

They face external pressures from competing religions and ideologies, cults, denominations, and from the coercive apparatus of the state, whether it is a theocracy such as Saudi Arabia or a secular democracy like India leaning overwhelmingly towards a majority faith. Other than the pressure to be on the right side of the regime at all times, this also means that the leadership and even the foot soldiers of religious institutions are always under scrutiny.

In the hot house of Kerala, where the Church is relatively rich, politically relevant and socially powerful, this becomes more important. The leadership tends to believe it holds the people in absolute thrall. This, alas, is now far from reality. Every action is seen, recorded, analysed. Mostly people remain quiet. Suddenly, some speak out. What we are seeing across Protestant and Catholic churches across Kerala, and elsewhere, is a result of this.

When we talk about crimes, gendered or financial, it is not canon law but the secular government law that takes precedence. All crimes must be shown zero tolerance and be pursued to the limit. This applies to all religions, whether it is Hinduism or Islam or Christianity.

Believers can find path to Jesus, they don’t need Church for that

Sister Jesme
Whistleblower, and author Amen: The autobiography of a nun

Churches are steeped in material pleasures and commercialisation. They have gone from being places of spiritual fulfilment to corporate institutions.

They have managed to amass a lot of wealth. This in turn has provided them the leverage to wield political power. Moreover, their congregation is like a vote-bank. So the power is two-fold, political and social. The electoral advantage that they can provide and the funds that they can raise keep them protected politically.

These advantages make the Church act with impunity. The juniors know that the seniors will protect them, and the seniors know that they hold the cards. The Church is protecting oppressors; it is protecting rapists because they are wealthy and powerful. The priests think they have the license to act in any manner they want.

We need to bring spirituality back to these institutions. Jesus and materialism cannot co-exist. The situation in Kerala is worse because people are still afraid to talk about the abuse of power by the Church. The victims are ill-treated, shamed and ostracised. Look at what happened to the woman who went for a confession.

As someone who quit the Church and spoke against it, I am still abused by the priests openly. One can only imagine how people who are still part of the Church deal with it.

Another alternative is to have a central authority that can hold these people accountable. They shouldn’t just go around clamouring for minority rights. They can’t use that as a shield to protect themselves from such charges.

Religion is personal, not public. Believers can find a path to Jesus, and they don’t need a Church, a seminary or a convent for that.

If accused is found guilty, disciplinary action will be taken by Church

Fr. M.O. John
Priest Trustee, Malankara Orthodox Church

There is an internal inquiry, which is taking place, there is a court case and the police inquiry is also going on simultaneously in this matter. Our own investigations have come to a standstill because we do not have the woman’s statement or the priest’s. We do not know if there has been an application for bail.

We do not think these are motivated allegations against the Church. When a woman has given a statement, we will have to take it at face value. She told her story before the magistrate therefore we cannot disbelieve it.

There are two aspects of reform in a Church. The first aspect is about the government, the police and the courts being legally bound to take a decision. The second aspect is about the Church taking an independent action vis-à-vis the priests.

There is an accusation of sexual assault so even if the government sets the accused free, we will have to take disciplinary action against them if we find them guilty. This will be done independently.

When we take action, it will also send a strong message to churches across the country that such incidents will not be tolerated. We cannot and will not ignore the failures on the part of the members/disciples of the Church.

In the light of this event, should the system of confessions stop in India? No, it should continue. If there are corrupt politicians, will you ban the political party? There are so many issues that have come to light regarding the election procedure, but we do not stop elections. There have been cases of sexual abuse on children going to kindergarten, does that stop us from sending our children there? No, it does not.

This week, a lot of people turned to our churches for confessions. They’re not bothered about what has happened.

If you can’t trust your priest, whom can you trust?

Mala Parvathi
Actor and psychologist

People, especially believers, often don’t want to talk about what is happening in the Church. They think that by commenting on the Church, the issue will turn political. What we need right now is dialogue. The Church has often been able to keep scandals and trespasses under the carpet. That must change.

There is a great need for transparency in the functioning of the Church. Women are scared of speaking out against ill-treatment. They are silenced or suppressed. A number of cases have already made their way to the public sphere. The woman who has been abused and blackmailed because of a confession is disturbing. Such stories make you lose faith in the world. If you can’t trust your priest, whom can you trust?

The Church has money and political power. It has people who speak up for it. What do the victims have?

The government or the National Commission for Women should form a committee comprising psychologists and set up an inquiry panel. We need to know the gravity of the situation. No one seems to be speaking against the Church. We need to change that. Women must feel that they are in a safe space and should be able to articulate their problems.

This a major issue that needs our attention.

Church has failed people when it comes to incidents of sexual abuse

Rohini Swamy
Associate Editor, ThePrint

Incidents such as these show that there is a need for reform within all religious institutions. Cases of sexual abuse are not unheard of and have been spoken about in whispers earlier. But the brutality of it seems to have been exposed now with more and more people stepping out to report instances.

The concept of confession is used to help people feel that they can admit to their sins and then turn over a new leaf in their lives. But if some people are taking advantage of this practice to assault someone, then it becomes a ground to initiate criminal action.

People trust the priest and hope s/he will give them a patient hearing and a solution. But it would be a lie to say that we have not heard of instances where people were blackmailed or sexual favours were sought.

The first complaint in all cases first goes to the Church. But if the Church delays informing the law enforcement agencies, it amounts to violation of a directive that had been issued by the Pope after sexual abuse cases were reported across the world in churches. The Pope had clearly said that any such incident should be reported by the church immediately to the police.

In the cases that have come to light in Kerala and Jalandhar, a police complaint from the church is missing. It is important to understand that the Church has not been able to distinguish between morality as a sin and as a crime under civil law. This is the biggest problem. The church can definitely take action on the morality bit, but it is up to the law to follow up on criminal actions.

This case has cast a doubt in the minds of many on whether they can trust the priest. Many I spoke to said that they believe priests are the messengers of God, and their faith in them remains unshaken. Few, however, felt that if the Church fails to instill confidence in people against incidents of sexual abuse, their trust will wilt.

Compiled by Deeksha Bhardwaj, journalist at ThePrint

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  1. A lot of abuse has taken place in the United States, as well, over decades. The authorities of the Catholic Church, all the way up to the Vatican, should not feel that these allegations tarnish the image of the Church, ought to be hushed up. With a minimum of fuss, the complaints should be enquired into, the offending individuals relieved of their religious duties, matters entrusted to the authorities for formal investigation and prosecution. 2. Celibacy is against the order of nature. No one should be surprised – although we are all pained – by these incidents. Many more are probably unreported. It may be time to consider if priests and nuns can serve the Lord without having a normal married life.

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