As Kerala's Orthodox Church reels from multiple sex scandals, the faithful fear credibility of institution is under threat

A parishioner who rattled the Kerala-based Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church by exposing the sexual abuse of his wife by a group of clergymen for the last 20 years, is devastated. Sebastian (name changed) had taken up the matter with the church authorities with the hope that they will solve the issue as per laws of the Church. But to his utter shock, the prelates took the side of the offenders and mounted pressure on him to withdraw his complaint. And when Sebastian did not yield to the pressure, they even resorted to character assassination of him and his wife.

The 40-year-old, who works as a sales manager in a private firm, said the Church has been portraying him as a trouble maker and his wife as a sex monger after he pursued his complaint.

A devout Christian, Sebastian says he had unabiding faith in the Church and its goodness. In fact, he had decided against taking up the criminal offence committed by five priests as he did not want to tarnish the image of the Church. But he lost this faith after the Church allegedly made his wife a subject of ridicule in public, by handing the confession she made to him regarding her sexual exploitation over to the accused priests and media persons.

He said he attached the document with his complaint to the Church authorities to convey the gravity of the actions of the priests, but the Church allowed the clergymen to use it to defend themselves in the court and to malign his wife in public. "I did not expect the Church to do this to a helpless woman whose life was trampled upon by the members of its clergy," he added.

"I want my wife back. I don't know how she will be able to cope with her life after this character assassination. I am an ordinary person. I didn't have big dreams. I only want my family to be happy. I don't know whether the Church will allow us to live in peace," Sebastian said.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

His fear is not unfounded. The case of a woman from Ayiroor in Pathanamthitta, who committed suicide after a priest leaked her secret confession to another woman in her parish, is a glaring example of the vengeful approach of the Church. The deceased woman's husband, who lodged a police complaint against the priest, was expelled from the Church. And though he didn't pursue his complaint, he was taken back into the fold only after 10 years.

There have been several other such cases. The normal practice seems to be to deny sacraments to those who disobey the Church and its diktats. As the faithful consider these sacraments to be among the most important aspects of the Catholic faith, they are usually unwilling to antagonise the Church. Roy Mathew, a senior journalist close to the Church, said that many priests have been taking advantage of this situation to sexually exploit the women.

"The victims mostly hold their silence due to fear of consequences. In rare cases, the victims approach the church forums but they usually try to compromise the case in favour of the offenders. There have been several cases in which victims were forced to withdraw their complaints," Roy said.

He added that at least 100 complaints against the priests were suppressed in this manner over the last few years. Many withdrew their complaints under duress, he said, pointing out that a senior bishop had intervened when a non-resident Keralite (NRK) refused to withdraw a complaint he filed against a priest at Ranni under the Nilackkal diocese on 6 June for sexually exploiting his wife.

He said the NRK withdrew his complaint after he was summoned to the bishop's house nine times and brainwashed. A section of the priests in the diocese has come out against the alleged cover-up. Roy said similar pressure was also mounted on Sebastian to withdraw his complaint.

"Many bishops and influential people in the Church spoke to Sebastian, his wife and their parents several times. But before they could persuade the families, the media took up the issue. If it was not for the media, the case would have been swept under the carpet," Roy said.

Police intervention in the confession-related case has encouraged many others to seek legal recourse in sexual abuse cases. Enthused by the strong stand taken by the police in the case, a 39-year-old woman has also filed a police complaint about a sexual assault she faced at the hands of a priest in 2014.

The woman took legal recourse against Binu George, a priest under the Koypallikaranma Orthodox diocese, after the Church did not take any action on her complaint for four years. The woman accused the priest of raping her four years ago, when she had approached him for help in settling a family dispute. The police registered a case of rape against the priest.

With the number of priests facing sexual assault charges on the rise, the faithful fear that this will erode the credibility of the Church. Many in the Christian community are already amazed that the scandal is dwarfing a Church that permits its priests to marry.

Church activists, who have been mounting pressure on the Vatican to lift its condition of celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church, in order to bring sexual abuse by the clergy to an end, have started debating the reasons for the malaise in the light of the scandals rocking the Orthodox Church.

A section of the activists feels that the growing sexual misdemeanours by the clergy could also be due to the entry of a new generation of youths into the vocation. TK Oommen, an Tiruvalla-based activist, said the new entrants were joining the clergy as they consider it as a rewarding profession. "Earlier, people entered seminaries after receiving the God's calling. There is no such thing now. This is because the priesthood has become a profession. More than 80 percent of the new generation priests are careerists," he added.

He said a large number of youths from the Orthodox Church was coming forward to join the religious order as they don't have to work hard to become a priest. A youth in the Orthodox needs to study theology only for five years after graduation to become a priest whereas their counterparts in other sects have to spend many more years in the seminaries.

"The Jesuit order requires a person to study for 18 years to become a priest. A person who spends so many years in a seminary will come out refined and spiritually focused while the others stray into worldly pleasures," Oommen said.

Saying it was this category that was creating problems in the Church, he has called for a reform in the recruitment process if the Church wants to maintain its high standards of spirituality.

Fr Mathew Vazhakkunnam, a member of the Orthodox Church Managing Committee, agrees with Oommen. He said that the trouble in the Church had started after the selection process was changed. "In the olden days, selection was done by the Church committees consisting of the clergy and parishioners. The committee had done the selection carefully after ensuring that the person who aspires to become a priest was spiritually oriented. Now anybody can join a seminary and come out as a priest after five years," Fr Mathew said.

Noted writer Paul Zachariah said that the vast opportunities for growth in the Church following the massive expansion of the Church and its institutions were attracting youth to the religious order. He said that one of the prime attractions was the scope to go abroad. "Earlier, youngsters from poor families were joining the vocation. Now, young boys and girls from well-to-do families are also coming forward in large numbers. Part of the reason for this interest is the increasing opportunity to go abroad following the migration of many Christians in Kerala to other parts of the world and the acute shortage of priests in many countries, especially Europe," Zachariah said.

He said that sex was not a serious issue for the priests as they can get it easily within the confines of the Church. They are also not bothered about the sex and corruption scandals, as the Church has the money and muscle power to cover them up, the writer added.


Updated Date: Jul 14, 2018 10:50 AM

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