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Cardinal Gracias needs to walk the talk

Cardinal of the Mumbai diocese and said to be in the running for the Pope’s position, Oswald Gracias is under a cloud for not cracking down on sexual predators

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By all accounts, the speech given by Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai in Rome on February 22, the second of the four-day Vatican Summit on clerical sexual abuse, was oratory at its best.

Addressing fellow presidents of the National Bishops Conferences from all over the world, he was articulate, eloquent, fluent, inspiring, delivering both admonishment and encouragement, praise and blame even-handedly. He talked up accountability, deplored “the culture of silence” among bishops that had contributed to this horrendous evil, and said every bishop had to share responsibility and accountability.

 Cardinal Gracias needs to walk the talk

Cardinal Oswald Gracias. Getty images

More importantly, he asked the bishops to reflect upon three main themes: justice, healing and pilgrimage. Interestingly, he said that “justice must come through cooperation with civil authorities”.

The cardinal is accused by some within the 600,000-strong Catholic community of Mumbai, of failing on all three parameters, thus betraying the victims and further contributing to the “culture of silence”.

Even as the Summit got underway in Rome, a petition was being submitted in a court in Mumbai, seeking action against the cardinal under the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The petitioner is the father of a boy alleged to have been sexually abused by a Catholic priest, Lawrence Johnson, who has been in jail since 2015, charged under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and relevant sections of the POCSO Act.

An editorial in the diocesan mouthpiece, The Examiner, dated the week before his address at the Vatican Summit, declares that Cardinal Gracias “himself takes the protection of minors very seriously”. From July 2015, the Child Protection Policy has been implemented in the 150-odd schools run by the Archdiocesan Board of Education and in meetings with the clergy, he has “firmly stated a zero tolerance policy regarding child abuse” in any institution run by the church.

Ironically, in the very next issue celebrating the cardinal’s eloquent address, there is a statement by the spokesperson of the Archdiocese, Fr Nigel Barrett, detailing the chronology of the way this case was handled by him. Mishandled, say his detractors. The family, which was brought to the cardinal by a friend on November 30, say they met him for a short while as he prepared to leave for Rome the same night. They claim to have asked for medical help and were “offered none”, according to a BBC report. Unhappy with their treatment, they went to a doctor at first and from there to the police. The priest was arrested immediately.

Accusations of failing to act are strongly rebutted by Fr Barrett. “On receiving the complaint, ecclesial (meaning church) action was immediately taken and the priest was stripped of his duties. Further to ecclesial action, the cardinal informed the bishop to start the inquiry into the allegations, and left for Rome. On reaching, he again spoke of the need to go to the police in the case. But the family had already informed them and now the law of the land prevails.”

As one of the nine advisers to the Pope, and one of the four organisers of the summit, regarded by the world media as a “high stakes event” for the Pope, the cardinal tends to stand out. Add to the mix the fact that in 2013 he was tipped as a possibility in the race to replace Pope Benedict XIII (albeit with an outside chance), and the mix gets headier.

In fact, although the summit was announced in September 2018, the stories began surfacing only at the actual start of the event. One, run by BBC News on February 21 damningly headlined “Indian Catholic Cardinal Oswald Gracias failed abuse victims”, retold the story of the child, but dug further into the past, to 2009, when a woman had complained to him that her daughter was being sexually abused by a priest who conducted retreats. When no action was taken, in 2011, she approached a woman’s group that pressured the cardinal to set up an inquiry. Six months later, there was still no result and the priest continued to preside over activities in his parish. When he was finally removed, no reason was given and nothing was established, the report said.

And then there was the slow pace of action against Bishop Franco Mulakkal, accused by a nun of raping her repeatedly between 2014 and 2016. The nun from the Missionaries of Jesus Congregation in the Jalandhar diocese, is said to have complained to the Nuncio, the papal representative, months before he was actually removed from office. In September, he was interrogated by the police in Kerala, arrested and jailed for 25 days, before being given bail. The trial is yet to begin.

Everyone who has heard the cardinal speak or engages in conversation with him, says he is a man of rare charm, extremely likeable, easy to listen to.

Fr Anthony Charangat, long-time editor of The Examiner, has known the cardinal since they were in the seminary together, studying to be priests. Of him, he says, “The cardinal is not just charming, he is also brilliant, with a sharp intellect and distinguished analytical and decision-making abilities. But his guiding principle is reconciliation and sometimes this makes him too conciliatory, too soft when handling recalcitrance, and this can lead to less than perfect decisions.”

All this cuts little or no ice with groups like the Association of Concerned Catholics (AOCC), which has, more often than not, been a thorn in his side with its aggressive stance on various issues.

Judith Monteiro, one of the earliest members who is known for not mincing words or muting criticism of the Church and its hierarchy, says about the declarations at the summit on processes and protocol: “Being a good orator or good organiser should not be the only criterion for being part of the C9 (council of cardinals, which currently has six members after Pope Francis removed three last year). It is more important to be a good listener to Christ’s flock, of which he is the shepherd. His speeches (at the summit) would have been more effective if he had acted sooner upon complaints.”

This sentiment is amplified by Charmaine Bocaro, lawyer for the family in the case of sexual abuse of a minor. Asked what she thought of the outcome of the summit, she said, “Omission is as bad as commission and the cardinal is guilty of not doing enough to address the issue. I wasn’t fooled by the summit. It was held just to silence critics of the Church, especially in America. To think that the cardinal was appointed one of the four organisers of the event when he has done nothing in the matter in his own country. I see us as being back at square one, on Ground Zero. The whole thing was a massive cover-up.”

Meanwhile, in Rome, the Vatican is contending with the negative fallout of the founder and entire female editorial board of its own monthly publication, “Women Church World”, quitting on March 26. According to the editor, Lucetta Scaraffia, this is in protest against what they call a Vatican campaign to discredit them and “put them under the direct control of men” for some of their views on the role of women in the Church.

(Carol Andrade is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist)

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