Church's cover-up, silencing of sexual abuse rampant in Kerala; institution's systemic decay gives little hope to survivors
Things in the Church have changed for the better marginally as they have been able to consolidate people’s anger through the protest in Kerala of nuns and priests.
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.
“I don’t think there is any system. I am not aware of anything like that,” said Father Francis Kurishankal, when asked whether the church he was posted at has any mechanism to deal with sexual abuse. Appointed recently, Father Kurishankal is in his early thirties and is the parish priest currently in charge of the Lourde Matha Church in Puthenvelikkara in Kerala’s Ernakulam district.
One of his predecessors, Father Edwin Figarez, was the first Catholic priest in the state to be convicted under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The priest, when he was the vicar at the same church, had subjected a 14-year-old to sexual abuse for two months, beginning January 2015, under the guise of teaching her music. When the girl finally told her mother about her ordeal, an FIR was registered at the Puthenvelikara Police Station under Section 376(2)(i) (punishment for sexual assault) of the Indian Penal Code and sections 4, 5(1) read with sections 6, 9 (1), 10, 11(ii)(iii) and 12 of the POCSO Act, which pertain to penetrative sexual assault, punishment for the crime and sexual harassment.
TM Varghese, who is now the Ernakulam Deputy Superintendent of Police (Central Range), was the investigating officer who pursued Father Figarez even after the accused left the country with the help of his brother and members of the church committee.
“It was a case involving a minor. We wanted to apprehend the accused at the earliest. We issued a lookout notice and kept track of the movements of Figarez’s family, who had taken him to the UAE,” Varghese said.
Father Firagez eventually surrendered in April 2015, claiming he was being framed and would be acquitted. But in December 2016, he was convicted for the crime and sentenced with a double life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 2.5 lakh.
The Kotturpuram Diocese, which Father Firagez was part of, was accused of supporting him and helping him escape, though it has denied the allegation. An official of the Kottappuram Diocese told Firstpost that Figarez had been temporarily suspended on the basis of a report prepared by a commission appointed by Bishop Joseph Karikkassery in May 2015, which is pending the Vatican’s approval. The bishop was unavailable for comment.
Less than two years after this episode of a Kerala clergyman being involved in a case sexual abuse, the state is about to witness another such trial. However, the stark difference in the current case is that the Kerala Police took nearly two months after the complaint was filed to even interrogate the accused.
The Catholic society in Kerala is currently plagued by the case of a nun’s allegations against Bishop Franco Mulakkal of the Jalandhar Diocese of raping her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. The Kerala Police arrested him on Friday, months after the nun filed the complaint of rape against him. On Thursday, the Vatican had temporarily relieved him of his pastoral duties.
“The problem is not just with the Catholic Church, it is also with the government,” said Father Augustine Vattoli, Catholic priest and convener of the Save Our Nuns Action Council, which organised the unprecedented protests at Ernakulam’s Vanji Circle seeking the arrest of a rape-accused clergyman. “It took 90 days for this Left Democratic Front government in Kerala to finally move against Mulakkal. They were afraid of the repercussions. If the sisters hadn’t come out in protest, this case would have disappeared like every other case.”
Comparing the two cases, Father Vattoli said the clout Mulakkal enjoys played a major role in the way things panned out. “In Edwin’s case, he belonged to the Latin right. There was an attempt to protect him, too, but the law finally took its course, and the Church backed off. But Mulakkal’s case is different. He also belongs to the Latin right, but is a Syrian Christian. He is powerful within and outside the Church, with strong political connections. He also has connections in the Roman hierarchy. If those involved are aligned with the powerful within the hierarchy, the Church will be even more protective.”
Instead of extending support, Church trying to silence protests
The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC) and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) have issued statements in support of the rape-accused clergyman from time to time. “The KCBC has the moral responsibility to stand with the victim. But instead, it took a stand against the protest (by nuns and priests). These authorities are stubborn because there is a clear concentration of wealth, of power,” Father Vattoli alleged.
On Monday, the KCBC blamed “some vested interests and sections of the media with a hidden agenda” for using an “unproved accusation against a bishop” to “implicate the Church as a whole” and make a “laughing stock out of the Catholic Church”. The council also said that the protest of nuns and priests was “not in keeping with Christian values, the rightful interests of the Catholic Church and the statutes of the Catholic congregation”, and that such protests “give occasion to the enemies of the Church to attack it”.
Father Vattoli feels that instead of inculcating the values the movement has brought forth, the Catholic Church is, instead, now attempting to create a fear psychosis among those who took part in the struggle. “The movement is far from over, but retaliatory measures have started.”
When she returned from the protest, Sister Lucy Kalapura received oral instructions from her superior at St Mary’s Church in Karakkamala to stay away from the day-to-day activities of the church. On Sunday, the church issued a letter, stating that “her statements on social media and other platforms are not in line with her religious duties”, and that “her behavior is affecting those who believe in the Church”.
Sister Lucy said: “The church released this letter with allegations against me to the press. They didn’t directly talk about the protest, but the attempt is to malign me. This has always been the case. They don’t want anybody to come out with facts against them. Every time I do, they’ve tried to silence me using such indirect methods. My church has never been appreciative of me. Instead, they indulge in such activities and try to initiate false action against me.”
She added that both the bishop and parish priest of her church had tried to meet her parents to complain about her activities. “I am not a child. I have my own opinion, and such methods won’t stop me from doing what I’ve always been doing,” Sister Lucy asserted.
A priest in Kerala is also facing action for his participation in the protest. The Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate has issued a letter for Reverend Bar Yuhanon Ramban for taking part in the demonstration seeking action against Mulakkal.
Church’s attempts to cover-up sex crimes runs deep
Father Vattoli, who has long been speaking out against the authority of the Church, was expecting something along these lines. “This means that we may perish because of the decay in the institution, but we won’t be flexible or even open to change. Look at Father Robin’s case. He was living with that crime. The bishop of Mananthavady had tried his best to protect him. Both had tried to bribe the father of the minor girl (he was accused of assaulting) and told him to take responsibility for her pregnancy. Of his own daughter!”
He was referring to the case related to Father Robin Vadakkumchery, who was the vicar of the Sebastian Church in Kannur district’s Kotiyoor. In 2016, he had sexually assaulted and impregnated a minor, who used to attend a computer class run by the church. To cover up the crime, the girl was transferred to a Church-owned institution in Kannur, where she gave birth to the baby. Only when the police interrogated the girl’s father did they reveal that they were forced to hide Father Vadakkumchery’s name due to threats from him and his supporters from the Church.
Nine officials, including five nuns and hospital authorities, were charged with covering up the crime. While a DNA test proved that Father Vadakkumchery was the father of the baby, the minor and her mother said in a statement in a POCSO court in Thalaserry that the girl was willing to marry the clergyman, and that the relationship between them was consensual. The POCSO court had declared both of them hostile witnesses.
“Everybody has understood what is happening and who is coercing the victim and her family. Such efforts have been on since we started the investigation. But even if these statements are changed and the witnesses turn hostile, there is strong evidence against the accused. The case will stand just on the basis of this evidence,” said Deputy Superintendent of Police Prajeesh Thotatthil, who led the investigation against Father Vadakkumchery.
Church’s structure needs evaluation, despite slow changes
“There is a lot to be evaluated. Why do these rapes happen? These sisters have only been slavishly working since they joined the Church. But why do such still incidents happen so regularly?” questions Father Vattoli, who believes that the core problem lies in the structure of the system.
“The formation of priesthood itself was wrong. There has been no social or cultural analysis of the Catholic Church, of the system, of its hierarchical nature — especially that of the priests — the bishop and the most marginalised in this framework, the nuns,” he pointed out, questioning why this has never been done. “Many are picked for priesthood at a very young age. I entered the system at an age where I didn’t even understand the meaning of celibacy or priesthood. There should be a complete rejuvenation of this system.”
However, Father Vattoli acknowledged that when compared to the case of Sister Abhaya’s murder — she was found dead in a well in St Pius X Convent in Kottayam on 27 March, 1992 — things have changed for the better, even if marginally, as they have been able to consolidate people’s anger through the struggle committee spearheaded the protest of nuns and priests.
“The most marginalised in the Church hierarchy, the nuns, came out to speak up for one of their own. But when Sister Abhaya died, there were prayers for the accused, and none for the dead sister. We couldn’t do anything for years. The state and the police colluded with them (the accused) to bury the case.”
The 19-year-old Catholic sister’s body was found with abrasions and cuts, despite which the police had ruled that the cause of death was suicide. Only after repeated petitions by the nuns of the convent to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was the case reopened in 2007. It was after the CBI conducted narco-analysis tests on those at the convent that Father Jose Puthurukkayil, Father Thomas M Kottur and Sister Sephy confessed to the murder, saying that they had killed Sister Abhaya to silence her as she had found them when they were being sexually intimate. The CBI had also informed the Kerala High Court that most of the evidence was destroyed with the help of the police, especially the investigating officer and Superintendent of Police at the time, KT Michael. The trial in this case is still on.
“They don’t want us to bring to the fore the real situation inside the Church. They fear that if we do that, the reality will be clear. Be it about how rules are followed or who breaks these rules, they don’t want that,” said Sister Lucy. “They’ve proclaimed from time to time that they want reform, but that is only for the sake of it. People like me who are trying to push for this reform are faced with such backlash.”
Recent incidents, such as the land scam in which Cardinal George Alencherry, the archbishop of the Ernakulam Diocese, was involved, only add to the disappointment people have been feeling with the Church.
Father Vattoli said that many have already stopped going to Church, especially youngsters as they can see that the institution that preaches values is compromising on the same. He added that there is nobody to stand up from within the system and say, “No, we will not permit this anymore.”
He emphasised that the problem was no longer with just sexual abuse of the nun who accused Mulakkal of rape, and that “the decay was at the very core”. Father Vattoli said that despite Mulakkal’s arrest, he was certain that the survivor nun won’t get justice. “But people’s anger has punished the culprit. The court of the people has decided.”
In contrast, Sister Lucy is defiant and hopeful. She said that even if her Church tries to silence her by dismissing her from the congregation, she won’t stop speaking out when necessary. “They need to realise that I am a part of them, though they might try to keep me away. My struggle is to reform the system, something that they should be doing more than me.”
With inputs from Rejoice Chembakasseri
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