Church and sexual abuse: Only Pope can give me justice denied by powerful, says mother of raped-murdered teen

As the outrage against sexual assault by men in positions of power within the Church continues, the role of those who are aware of the wrongdoings hasn't been examined

Greeshma Kuthar Last Updated:May 27, 2021 18:02:59 IST
Church and sexual abuse: Only Pope can give me justice denied by powerful, says mother of raped-murdered teen

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 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.

As the outrage against sexual assault by men in positions of power within the Catholic Church like Theodore Edgar McCarrick and Franco Mulakkal continues, the role of those who are aware of the wrongdoings of these men hasn't been accorded the scrutiny it deserves.

"When the highest person in charge of a place of worship is aware of a rape committed by a priest working under him, isn't it his responsibility to report this? Why didn’t they take the side of my murdered daughter? Why did they side with the man who raped and killed her?” These questions by a mother whose minor daughter was found dead in a church in Palakkad district on 23 July, 2013 led to charges being framed against a bishop and four priests belonging to the Coimbatore Diocese.

Bishop Thomas Aquinas, Father Madalaimuthu, Father Kulandairaj, Father Lawrence and Father Melcure of the Coimbatore Diocese will have to face a court of law for voluntarily hiding information of sexual assault and murder of Fathima Sophia, who was found dead by Father Arockiaraj at Stanislaus Church in Pallakad district's Walayar.

On the day of the incident, Shanthi Rosalin was visiting a relative who was sick and had left her daughter at home. In a couple of hours, she received a frantic call from Arockiaraj. He had known the family since Sophia had been a child. Calling from his church in Walayar, he kept referring to Sophia and hysterically repeating "konnitaen, konnitaen," she recalls. As she drove towards Walayar, he kept calling her and repeating this line. When she reached the police station, a tearful Arockiaraj was standing outside. He told her that he had heard choking noises from Sophia's room. When he rushed to her room, he saw that she had hanged herself, using her dupatta. He cut the dupatta and brought her down. While she was being taken to the hospital, she lost her life in his hands.

On the insistence of Arockiaraj, Madalaimuthu and the SI-in-charge Ravindran, Sophia's mother Rosalin signed on a complaint drafted by Ravindran hours after the dead body of Sophia was found. "The complaint was in Malayalam and I couldn't read it. But they rushed me into signing this as they told me I could see my daughter's body only after signing this complaint," says Rosalin. This complaint eventually led to a cover-up of the crime for a year-and-a-half. The case was closed as a suicide.

"For months after, everything was a blur," she says. Rosalin suffered a heart attack and was bedridden for close to a year.

Canonical committee hides commission of rape and murder

Weeks after the death, a canonical committee was constituted by Bishop Thomas Aquinas of Coimbatore to inquire into the role of Arockiaraj in the death of Sophia. During the hearings of the committee in August 2013, Arockiaraj had confessed that he had “used the girl”. The committee had initiated proceedings soon after to have him removed from his duties. For almost a year after this, Rosalin had no idea about either the committee or the role of Arockiaraj in her daughter’s death. It was only when Rosalin found a love letter suggesting a relationship between Arockiaraj and Sophia in the latter's book did the pieces start falling together.

While Canon Law directs for committees to be constituted to look into incidents of wrongdoing, Father Joyce, director, Department of Catechism of the Ernakulam Angamally archdiocese insists that it is the responsibility of these committees and those at its helm to report crimes to authorities. "The law of the land precedes Canon Law. While processes within the Church to take the person to task can continue, the head of the diocese should immediately report such incidents to the police," he says. But this seldom happens, as events across the world in the recent past have shown.

Titular Archbishop Carlo Vigano in his letters dated 22 August and 29 September alleged that Pope Francis, the highest in the Catholic Church hierarchy, and other cardinals at the Vatican were aware of the sexual assault and molestation charges against McCarrick. He alleged that they wilfully chose not to act.

In her letter to the Vatican, the nun at the centre of the Kerala rape case has stated that she had informed Bishop Kallarangatt (the Bishop of the Palai Diocese), Bishop Vadakkel (the Bishop of the Ujjain Diocese) and Cardinal Mar George Alencheryy (head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church) about the sexual assault committed by Franco Mulakkal, at least six months before she registered the FIR. "Only because they refused to take action against Franco did she go to the police," says Sister Nirupama, who was among the five nuns who led the protests at Ernakulam.

The Catholic Church in India: Powerful and unaccountable

Jessica Richard of the Indian Christian Women's Movement (ICWM) believes that the lack of accountability of the Catholic Church is due to the Church being one of the most resource-rich Christian institutions in the country. "The CSI church gets dragged into litigation all the time. So do other mainline churches. But the Catholic Church, especially in Kerala, has remained untouched due to their proximity with the ruling," says Jessica, adding that it's not the same with other Churches, even in cases of sexual assault.

During a counselling session, 13 year old Elsa (name changed to protect identity) complained to Hema of a stomach pain. "On prodding further, I understood that she had been sexually assaulted by a pastor of her church," says Hema. Elsa’s mother worked as a helper at Peechi Church in Thrissur. Sanal K James, the pastor, would visit Elsa’s home on the pretext of summoning her mother for work. After she would leave, he would sexually abuse Elsa. He would also take her to his room whenever she accompanied her mother to the church and assault her.

Hema informed the police. While recording her complaint, Elsa mentioned another person to suffer at the hands of Sanal James. A second FIR was registered. "Swift action was taken against the accused. He was arrested overnight and we completed the trial in less than three months," says Advocate Pious Mathew. When asked if the church to which the pastor belonged tried to stall proceedings, he replies, "The commander was present during the trial and informed the court that the pastor was removed from all duties. He provided us with documents that helped in establishing that Sanal James was a pastor." Sanal James was convicted by a Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) court under both the cases in March 2016 and May 2017. He is currently serving a term of 40 years.

Sanal James belonged to the Salvation Army, a protestant church. Olga Aaron from Tamil Nadu mentions that the power a church yields is directly proportional to who constitutes that order. "The Salvation Army can almost be seen as a Dalit Church. Almost all the members of this Church are from the Dalit community. The members of this Church or the Church itself have no power. There is no question of any of them escaping the law. But the Catholic Church on the other hand, is made up of dominant caste communities, majority of whom have political clout. How else could Franco evade a process of law for three whole months?" she asks.

Collusion of the police and Coimbatore Diocese

The same is true in the case of the cover up of Sophia's death. "The Coimbatore Diocese and the police were involved in this cover-up. The incident took place on 13 July but evidence was collected from the room only the next day. By then, Arockiaraj had removed her cell phone from the scene of crime and had cleaned up the room," says Rosalin.

"When I found the letter written by Sophia about Arockiaraj, I went to the police station with it. But I was told that the case had been closed," she adds. The police had concluded that Sophia had mental health problems and had attributed this as a reason for her suicide. In fact, the reference to Sophia’s mental health problems and anger issues was made in the complaint drawn up by SI Ravindran. Rosalin had mentioned the calls made by Arockiaraj on the day of the incident and how she had no idea why her minor daughter was at Walayar without her knowledge to SI Ravindran.

"But none of this was in the FIR. I wanted to know who was covering up the death of my daughter," says Rosalin. With this in mind, she started asking questions. When she found out about the canonical committee findings, she tried meeting Acquinas on multiple occasions, but he refused to meet her. She started making calls to Arockiaraj and others from the committee. "Arockiaraj confessed to having sexual relationship with Sophia. He also said that they had an argument and when he was trying to get her to keep quiet, he strangled her," says Rosalin, who recorded the conversation. Similarly she recorded conversations with the pastors present at the canonical committee where they acknowledged Arockiaraj’s confession. With these recordings, she tried approaching the police to reopen the case. When that didn’t happen, she took part in a TV programe that conducted a sting operation on Arockiaraj. Rosalin met him at a bus stop where he acknowledged his guilt.

After this episode was telecast, Rosalin came under attack. Her house was stoned. A protest was organised against her by the Coimbatore Diocese, blaming her for maligning the reputation of the Church. Relentless, she went back to the Palakkad SP. After months of back and forth, the case was reopened on the directions of DGP Behera, after noticing the discrepancies in the evidence.

Church and sexual abuse Only Pope can give me justice denied by powerful says mother of rapedmurdered teen

Photographs of Fathima Sophia. Image procured by Greeshma Rai

Rosalin had seen the dupatta with which Sophia had allegedly hanged herself. A photo of it was also found in the evidence. Arockiaraj’s statement mentioned that he had cut this dupatta to bring Sophia’s body down. But the dupatta was photographed in its entirety at the police station on the day of the incident. This crucial piece of information led to the reopening of the case. Soon, eyewitnesses from Walayar recorded statements that disputed Arockiaraj's version. Subsequently, Arockiaraj was charged with sexual assault under the POCSO Act and IPC. He was arrested in December 2015 and was released on bail after three months, due to the non-filing of the chargesheet.

An inquiry constituted by DGP Bahera found SI Ravindran at fault for mishandling leading to destruction of evidence. But no action was taken against him and he retired a few months ago.

Discharge and fresh charges

The bishop and the four priests were also arrested in August 2016 and immediately released on bail. After this, they approached a sessions court with a petition for discharge, stating that while they had knowledge of the sexual assault, they knew nothing of the murder. This petition was allowed. Pursuant to this, the investigating officer Deputy SP Vijay Kumar told Firstpost that the police sought fresh directions from the Palakkad Sessions Court on 18 August to prosecute the bishop and four priests as it had collected more evidence to establish involvement in covering up the rape and murder. Another FIR was filed thereafter against Aquinas, Madalaimuthu, Kulandairaj, Lawrence and Melcure under Sections 201 and 202 of the IPC.

Reverend Father John Joseph Stanis, serving his fifth year as the Vicar-General of the Coimbatore Diocese, insists that they do everything under their powers to bring the errant to book. "Every Catholic institution is subject to the Canon Law.  According to the Canon Law, a priest is supposed to behave in a certain manner and if he violates this, he will be subject to punishment. We order an inquiry. If it is proved, we take action." He says that either the diocese will take the matter to the State or it will direct the party in violation to approach authorities. "As a Catholic, I am bound by Canon Law and as I am a citizen of this country, I am bound by civil law," he says.

While proceedings were initiated against Arockiaraj to remove him from his duties as a pastor following his deposition to the canonical committee, the Coimbatore Diocese didn’t convey this to the Police or intimate them about the crime.  In fact, the Police closed the case as suicide much later.

'Will the Pope give me justice?'

Poring over her files, with pages of marked photos, phone records and documents, Rosalin is confident that the criminal trial will go on without any more glitches as she herself has stitched together this case. "Arockiaraj has always told me the truth. He confessed to his crime. But it is powerful people like the bishop and the vicar-general who have not only denied justice to my daughter but have denied my rights too," she says. Rosalin was publicly ousted from her church. Her daughter was buried without sacraments. She says she has been writing to higher officials of the Church and she wants to write to the Pope soon. She believes only the Pope's intervention will bring an end to those colluding to bury her daughter's death. She hopes that she can return to her church someday.

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