The attempt by the Malankara Orthodox Church to settle the sexual abuse case against five priests has suffered a setback, with the Kerala government ordering a crime branch investigation into the scandal.
State police chief Loknath Behra has ordered the investigation based on a letter he received from senior ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and former chief minister VS Achuthanandan, said an official at the state police headquarters.
The Kerala State Human Rights Commission and the National Women's Commission had earlier directed the police to register a case but the police ignored these directions, citing absence of any complaint from either the victim or his family.
Senior high court advocate Mohammed Shah said there was no need for a complaint to register a criminal case if there was a credible information that a crime has been committed. He told Firstpost that the information already available in the present case was sufficient to register a first information report.
The case pertained to the blackmail and sexual abuse of a married woman by at least five priests after she confessed to a priest about her relationship with another priest she had before her marriage. After using the confession secret to blackmail and sexually abuse the woman, the priest further passed the information to the other priests, who continued the chain of blackmail and sexual abuse of the woman.
The woman revealed the details of the exploitation after her husband confronted her with a hotel bill that he found in her mail box. Though he had filed a complaint with the Church authorities in May, they sat over it until the scandal surfaced on social media last week.
A member of the Church at Tiruvalla said that the Church authorities were trying to settle the case within their confines. The Pathanathitta police did not initiate any step to register a case after an audio clip of the women’s husband disclosing the incident went viral on social media due to pressure from the Church authorities, said the member, who did not want to be identified.
He told Firstpost that the Church had set up a commission to inquire into the allegation after the complainant refused to budge to their pressure to withdraw his complaint. Several feelers were sent to him and his family but they held their ground.
The complainant himself disclosed that under the influence of the Church authorities, the family members of his wife had even filed a false case against him, saying that he had extracted the names of the five priests from her under duress.
He said that the Church had deployed some celebrities to dissuade him from pursuing his complaint. An accused priest also approached him and pleaded with him to take back the complaint. However, he said he asserted that he will not compromise and go all the way to ensure that the accused are punished.
He said that he wanted exemplary punishment for the priests as it will be lesson for the upcoming priests. He also demanded abolition of the system of confession, which he said was being used by the priests as a tool to sexually exploit women.
Human rights activists said that the Church was not ready to subject the priests to the judicial process as the case will erode the credibility of the Sacrament of Penance. Reji Njallani, founder of the open church movement, said that confession was one of the key foundations on which the Church is surviving.
“The priests are holding the faithful close to the Church by creating a false fear about sins and making them believe that they can be absolved by the ordained priests. We have been demanding abolition of the system of confession as it was being misused by a section of the priests,” Reji told Firstpost.
He said women, children and even nuns were vulnerable to the abuse of confession. Reji said there have been several incidents of priests using confession secrets to sexually exploit women and children. They are not speaking up due to fear.
He said that the Church was trying to cover up the sex scandal as conviction of the priests will strengthen the demand for abolition of the confession. The demand has gained momentum in the wake of the incident. Reji, therefore, feels that the Church will go to the maximum extent possible to shield the priests.
Human rights activist Jomon Puthenpurackkal feels that the inquiry commission set up by the Church itself could be part of the cover up. He told Firstpost that the attempt was apparently to gather all evidence before it goes to the police.
He said that the Church had already silenced the women and her family. “They are unlikely to say anything against the priests and the Church. The case filed by their family members against the woman's husband is a clear indication that they have already been bought,” said Jomon.
The commission headed by priest trustee MO John is yet to take the statement of the woman, who was sent back to her family by her husband following the disclosure of the scandal. The panel recorded the statement of the man on 28 June.
The priest has promised a fair inquiry. “We will hear the complainant, the victim and the priests before reaching our findings. We will not spare the guilty. If they are found guilty, they would face the punishment prescribed by the law of the land. But we will take them back if they prove their innocence,” he said.
However, Father John, who is also a member of the church working committee, expressed disbelief in the complaint filed by the woman’s husband. “The husband had alleged in his complaint that one priest had abused his wife 380 times. How could they wait till the figure reached 380?” he said, adding that this could be a reason why he is showing reluctance to file a police complaint.
Earlier, church managing committee chairman Father Abraham Mathew had also expressed doubt about the credentials of the complainant. He had told Firstpost that he had crossed swords with the church several times.
Church Association secretary Biju Oommen also appeared more concerned about the image of the church rather than the grave crime committed by the members of the clergy while reacting to the government’s decision to order a crime branch inquiry into the scandal.
He alleged that a section of the media and people were trying to use the incident to scandalize the Church. While welcoming the investigation and asserting the church's preparedness to face any inquiry, he said that a section of the people was trying to defame the church ever since the incident came up in the social media.
He has warned stern action against those who are trying to use the incident to malign the image of the Church. He said that the church will initiate legal action if the anti-church section continues to malign the church’s image.
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Updated Date: Jun 29, 2018 21:14:41 IST