Kerala churches shun what they preach, deny compensation to priests, nuns

When the Catholic Church in Kerala paid a compensation of Rs 12 lakh to a nun after she was expelled from her congregation last year, priests and nuns hoped that they too may get similar consideration if they opted out of the religious vocation.

But a 45-year-old nun was given dispensation without a penny after she decided to give up her robes following harassment from her superiors at the convent. Sister Mary Sebastian, who works as a teacher in a Church-run higher secondary school at Pala in Kottayam district, is determined to fight it out.

Though the Cherthungal Nasrathubhavan Convent under Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (CMC) agreed to pay her Rs 1 lakh following the intervention of activists, Mary is insisting on a compensation of Rs 30 lakh considering the 20 years of service she has rendered as a school teacher. She has refused to leave the convent without getting the compensation.

The convent authorities stopped her giving food and water, lodged ‘false’ complaints with the police, and even portrayed her mentally unstable after she took her plea to the Human Rights Commission and the Kerala Women’s Commission. They gave her food only after the media brought her plight to the notice of the public.

The double standard adopted by the Syro Malabar Church, one of the three Catholic denominations in the state under which the convent comes, in the two cases dismays the faithful. However, the Church activists are not surprised.

 Kerala churches shun what they preach, deny compensation to priests, nuns

Sister Mary Sebastian

Reji Njallani, who has been spearheading a campaign for severance pay to ex-priests and nuns under the banner of Catholic Priests, Ex-Priests and Nuns Association, feels Anitha, who belonged to St. Agatha Congregation, was paid the compensation as she had raised grave sexual abuse charges against a priest.

Anitha had alleged sexual assault by a priest while doing mission work in Madhya Pradesh in 2011. When she persisted with the complaint, she was transferred to Italy, where she was subjected to severe harassment and finally expelled. Anitha returned to her parent convent at Aluva and sought either reinstatement or compensation.

“The convent authorities refused to pay any compensation to her even while rejecting her demand to take her back. They agreed to pay her Rs 20 lakhs after the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese of the Church, under which the convent comes, intervened in the matter,” says Reji, who is the national chairman of the association.

The intervention by the higher-ups in the issue was viewed as an attempt to silence the nun. Sister Jesme, who quit the vocation in 2008 after alleging sexual abuses within the Church, had advised Anitha to give up the compensation and continue her fight to bring the priest and others who tried to protect him to book.

Anitha, who did not have the mental strength to withstand further torture, took the money and opted for a quiet life. Sister Mary, who faced harassment for speaking against misappropriation of foreign funds received by the congregation for charity as well as alleged ill-treatment of the children at a special school under it, is also aiming the same thing.

"I did not ask compensation for a luxurious life. I sought compensation for the service I rendered as a teacher to meet my bare minimum needs. I need a job and a house to begin my life afresh. My family is not ready to take me back because of the stigma attached to dispensation," Mary told the Firstpost.

The nun, who was allowed to quit in May this year, said the salary she earned as a teacher in the last 20 years will come to about Rs 50 lakhs. Leaving a few hundred rupees that were required to meet her personal needs, the rest has gone to the convent.

"I am asking only part of the salary which was incidentally given by the government. I will not leave the convent until I get it. I will sit in front of the convent if they evict me forcefully," says the former nun.

Syro Malabar Church spokesman Father Paul Thelekkat said he was personally not aware of the details of the case. "I think this is a case of exclaustration of a nun who for her own reasons does not want to continue to live anymore in a convent. When one leaves like this, I do not think there is any provision for compensation,” the priest said in an email communication.

However, Paul agreed that there could be a human problem depending on the case which he does not know. He said that the Church could consider supporting the nun since she was working in the school.

“In such cases, the church authorities usually send the member graciously out for her another life. The farewell can be very pleasant and even generous, but both parties must show that spirit of understanding and mutual respect. The charges of harassment and other allegations can be sorted out by mutual agreement of the third party and work for a peaceful settlement of the case,” the spokesman added.

However, the Church authorities have been denying compensation to priests and nuns who have quit the vocation either on their own or at the behest of the authorities citing Canon laws that the Church follows. The religious law does not provide for any severance pay to former priests and nuns. This is because the law does not define the Church service as a profession.

Njallani, who has been spearheading a campaign against ill-treatment of priests and nuns quitting the Church, does not buy the argument. The Church cannot deny the compensation on the ground that the priests and nuns are serving the God since the institutions of the Church are charging fees for their services, says the activist.

Njallani pointed out that the donation and tuition fees charged by “many of the self-financing colleges under the Church are more than what commercial institutions charge. Nobody knows where the money goes and how it is spent.

The Angamaly-Ernakulam diocese had given Rs 12 lakhs to Anitha on humanitarian grounds. The authorities had then claimed that the settlement with Anitha was not a compensation for any wrongdoing on the part of the congregation or the Church but the “generosity of the congregation” to make her settle in life after so many years of life in a convent.

Activists wonder why the Church was not showing the same generosity to hundreds of priests and nuns who have left the religious vocations for various reasons. Njallani said there were over 10,000 former priests and nuns throughout India, most of them aged over 50, struggling to settle in their new lives.

A conference convened by the KCRM in Kochi last year to discuss the issue was attended by 613 former priests and nuns from Kerala where the Christians constitute over 18 percent of the population. Njallani said that the meeting had decided to launch a nationwide campaign for living allowance for all those who have left the religious vocation.

“The priests and nuns who leave the vocation have spent their youth years within the Church. Not trained to do any other job, they are left with no money and family and society support to live the rest of their lives. How the Church that preaches compassion can so mercilessly push them into streets?” asks Reji.

Pointing out that the Constitution gives every citizen a right to lead a dignified life, Njallani said the association of ex-priests and nuns will soon approach the high court to ensure their right.

He warns that the legal battle may prove costly for the Church. Churches in western countries are already paying billions as compensation to abuse victims. He said that it will be in the interest of the Church if it does not force the former priests and nuns to go to the court.

Njallani suspects that Church was not granting severance pay to former priests and nuns because they fear that it may encourage others serving the Church to leave. The Church apparently cannot afford it since the new generation is not coming forward to join seminaries and nunneries.

Shibhu Kalamparambil, who quit his Vincentian order after witnessing sexual abuses within the Church for 14 years, said many like him wanted to drop out. He said that the problem with the vocation was that the Church is recruiting young boys and girls before they acquire mental maturity.

“By the time they become mature enough to decide for themselves it is too late. They are forced to remain in the Church because they are not prepared to live the lay life and have nothing to fall back on after they drop out. The family and society do not accept them as they consider quitting the vocation as a sin,” says Shibhu.

Shibhu, who rattled the Church by terming nunneries as brothels in his book entitled "Vaidikante Hrudayamitha (Here is the Heart of a Priest)", believes that the Church has a moral obligation to pay severance pay to those who decide to quit so that they can take care of the rest of their lives.

Njallani doubts whether the Church will understand its obligation since it is not practising what it is teaching.

Updated Date: Aug 10, 2016 20:01:03 IST