When a person confesses his sins to a priest, a very sacred sacramental seal is formed. Breaking this seal by the priest even to save his own life or that of another person or to aid the course of justice is treated as a grave sin by the Canon Law applicable to the Christians across the world.
A priest in Kerala committed this sin that amounts to criminal offence under the civil law by using the confession of a married woman to sexually exploit her and to present her to his fellow priests by sharing the details of the confession with them, according to the complaint of the woman's husband.
The man, a member of Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, one of the most ancient churches, filed the complaint before the Church authorities after his wife narrated her ordeal following discovery of a five-star hotel bill in her email box. The incident came to light after his telephonic conversation with a church official got leaked and found its way to the social media, rocking the two-million strong church with 30 dioceses, including seven in other Indian states and three abroad.
According to the audio clip that has been widely circulated on social media, the woman confessed about her relationship with another priest before her marriage. The complaint said that the series of rape incidents began after the confession which was made during their daughter's baptism.
The man alleged that the priest had shared the confession with, at least, five to eight priests, who used them to blackmail and sexually exploit her. Church head, Catholicos Baselios Marthoma Paulose II, has removed five priests, including one from Delhi, mentioned in the complaint from their official duties pending inquiry.
Church spokesman P C Elias said that the Church will hand over the complaint to the police if the allegations were found true. He said that a thorough investigation was required to ascertain the veracity of the allegations as some of them were very old.
The woman’s husband has not filed a complaint with the police so far. He said in his audio clip that he was expecting the Church authorities to take action against the priests involved in the sexual exploitation. He wants the accused priests to be defrocked and removed from the church.
However, senior officials of the Church have taken the allegations with a pinch of salt. Church managing committee chairman Father Mathew Abraham said the complainant had crossed swords with the Church on several occasions in the past. “Once he created a scene in his parish committee meeting and tried to assault a priest. Other members of the parish had condemned his action and isolated him from the community. He may be trying to take revenge by raising baseless allegations against the priests,” Mathew said.
He said that it was difficult to believe that priests will take women to star hotels for sex. "It is not easy for anybody to do such things in star hotels which are under 24x7 CCTV surveillance. If any one of the priests accused by the complainant has taken his wife to the five-star hotel, it can be confirmed from the CCTV footage,” he added.
Moreover, Mathew doubts whether any priest will break the seal of confession as his Church considers it as inviolable. He said that the present incident may be the first case of breaking the seal of confession since the origin of the Church in the evangelical activity of St Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century.
“All our priests realise the sanctity of the Sacrament of Penance. I don’t think anyone will do anything to break it. Moreover, most of our priests are living with families, maintaining high standards of Christian life,” the priest added. He also feels that the allegation could be part of attempts by a lobby trying to disrupt the reputation of the Church, which is involved in a legal battle with the rival Jacobite faction over the control of churches and their properties for nearly a century now.
However, the senior church official said that they will take the allegations seriously and asserted that exemplary punishment would be given to the priests if they have done anything wrong.
But church activists doubt it. Joemon Puthenpurackkal, who has been spearheading a campaign to bring to book two priests and a nun accused in a sex-related murder case for more than two-and-a-half decades, said that the Church had a long history of protecting the accused clergy.
He said he is still pursuing the case related to the murder of Sister Abhaya at a convent in Kottayam in March 1992 which is still pending in the trial court because of the Church attempting to protect the clergy involved in the case. He said that another minor girl was raped by a Catholic priest at Kottiyoor in Kannur district. Multiple institutions under the Church had sprung into action to shield Robin Vadakkancherry after the 17-year-old girl gave birth to a child.
"Sexual abuse cases involving the clergy are on the rise in Kerala. This is because the church is protecting the guilty. If Church officials stop this and take stern and timely action against the guilty, such cases will come down," Puthenpurackal said.
There has been a string of sexual assault cases involving clergymen in the state in the recent years. The latest in the series is the rape of a 42-year-old Bangladeshi native by a Catholic priest from Pala diocese in Kottayaam district.
The accused, Father Thomas Thanninilkumthadathil, had gone into hiding after the police registered a case against him following the woman’s complaint. The priest, vicar of St Mathew’s Church Perumthuruth near Kaduthuruthy surrendered before the police, following a huge public uproar in the social media.
Another Catholic priest from Thrissur had tried to escape similarly after raping a nine-year-old girl, who was attending classes for the Holy Communion, in 2014. Father Raju Kokken, vicar of the St. Paul’s Church at Thaikkattuserry, was later arrested and the case is now in a court in Thrissur.
In 2013, Father Arokiaraj, a priest at the St Stanislaus Church in Palakkad, had raped and killed 17-year-old Fatima. The priest, who confessed that he had sexually abused the victim, was dismissed from the church but the incident was not reported to the police. In December last year, a special court in Ernakulam awarded double life term to Fr Edwin Figarez on charges of raping a 14-year-old several times between January to March 2015 in the priest’s home at the Puthenvelikkara Church in Thrissur district.
Joemon said that the cases had come to light because of social media. Earlier, such cases were suppressed by the Church by exploiting the religious sentiments of the faithful, the human rights activist said.
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Updated Date: Jun 27, 2018 09:23:30 IST