Church and sexual abuse: Kerala nuns' refusal to turn away from injustice displays faith, demands attention
Those sisters show us what belief looks like. It is a faith in who we should be, not who we are
Editor's note: This is a multi-part series that investigates sexual abuse in the church and the institutions that it runs. Articles in the series rely on opinion pieces, interviews with victims, abusers, those accused of abuse, church elders, parish members and state officials to examine the role of the three institutions that are critical to the issue: The Church, the community, and the State.
For days now, I have been watching the footage of the Roman Catholic nuns sitting stone-faced in a city square in Kerala as witnesses to their sister who has accused a bishop of repeated rape. I am almost without words. Does anyone need to write that rape is unacceptable? No person should fear violence of any kind, especially in an avowed, religious community. Should not those who set their lives aside to serve and teach be treated even more gently than the rest of us? Is it worth writing that women as vulnerable as these do not make accusations lightly? They stand to lose everything. Some already have.
Among my colleagues in response to reports of sexual abuse we say, ‘I believe her.” We say it and share it before the usual suspects chime in with accusations against the victim. “How can rape occur repeatedly?” “It must have been her fault.” “Nothing at all happened.” To that we say, “I believe her.”
These sisters are saying the same, and they are doing it in the style of the original Christian witness, like the women at the foot of the cross. They will not turn away, and because of their witness, we cannot turn away.
Those sisters show us what belief looks like. They have faith in the police and court’s capacity to find the truth, which probably has no basis in their lived reality. It is a faith in who we should be, not who we are. They do not look to me like people easily influenced by foolishness. They make me want to sit up straight, check that my nails are clean, and hope my homework is correct. These women who are set apart and carry the honour of the church have expressed their faith in their church, in their society, and in their sister. We must pay attention.
The church is facing accusations like these in many parts of the world. Where the church has failed to govern itself with justice, civil society is doing it for us. It is a shame. A shame we have let it come to this, but it would be more of a shame if we made peace with evil in the name of pride.
This kind of violence is not limited to convents or to Kerala. I live in the United States, where #MeToo about sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace has been copied by the church with #ChurchToo. We have watched major religious figures rightly lose their empires because of allegations of abusing subordinates. #ChurchToo acknowledges that we have too often protected the more powerful person, as a way of protecting the institution of the church.
We have treated the vulnerable and the harmed as though they were the problem. The church I belong to in the United States enacted a liturgy in our church-wide meeting in which bishops read aloud the complaints of women who had been sexually harassed or abused in the church. It was powerful to see those hidden stories read by the people charged with protecting the church and its people. The responsibility of justice can, at times, be defending the institution of the church from attack from those on the outside who wish to do it harm, but there is also the attack from the inside, an attack on our core values from within that we must guard against.
All over the world, women and men are speaking about sexual harassment and sexual violence done to them. These are often stories that cause the victim to feel shame and trauma because of the way they might be judged by others. The vulnerability of these victims is confusing for some, and yet, if we think about it for just a moment, we know how difficult it is to resist a person with power over us.
These are difficult stories to hear. Many of us confuse the shamefulness of the violence done to a person, with shaming the person harmed. Maybe it is some kind of survival of the fittest response to laugh alongside the bully, to isolate the vulnerable, and to emotionally remove ourselves from any possibility that this same kind of harm could come to us or someone we love. We as a society have to decide we are better than that. We do not submit to our desire to manipulate or dominate other people. We inscribe in the law a fair and just society, and we check the power of those who abuse others.
I was at a church gathering in Kerala in which tens of thousands of people, overwhelmingly women, had taken over a church campus to celebrate Mother Mary. When I asked one of the men about it he said dismissively what translates to: ‘Oh, this is just women.’ He was right, and wrong. It was tens of thousands of faithful women. Those women love the church. Those women bring faith, authority, and even some respectability. They bring their families. From the time of Jesus, women have been among the disciples, our texts say they often paid for the others.
If the church cannot be a safe place for women, perhaps it should not have any. What if all of those vulnerable in these institutions left? There would be no church. I don’t think the sisters would approve. Those sisters have shown us the power of bearing witness to one another’s truth, whatever the cost. May God bless them, and may God bless the church with justice.
The author is an Episcopalian priest from Trinity, Wall Street, New York City
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