National Commission for Women’s recommendation for abolition of the practice of confession in Christian churches in the country has stirred a hornet’s nest in Kerala, where Christians constitute about 18 percent of the state’s 33.1-million population.
The recommendation has been made in a report submitted to the Union Home Ministry on the basis of the investigation conducted by the commission in two sex scandals — one involving four priests of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the second the Roman Catholic Bishop of Jalandhar Diocese.
The NCW move was prompted by the revelation by the Orthodox sex scandal victim that three of the four priests involved in the case had blackmailed and sexually abused her by using her confessional secret regarding a pre-marital relationship she had with the fourth priest.
NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma, who personally listened to the complaints of woman hailing from Tiruvalla in Pathanamthitta district, said that the recommendation was given as priests were found using the confession secret not only to sexually exploit women but also to blackmail men for money. “Priests pressure women into telling their secrets. We have one such case in front of us. There must be many more such cases and what we have right now is just a tip of the iceberg. Many women are suffering. Women cannot share their private life with priests,” Sharma was quoted by The Indian Express as saying.
The NCW demand has evoked mixed reactions in the state. While the church has termed it as an attack on the religious freedom and secular fabric in the country, the reformists have viewed it as a reflection of the need for reforms in the church.
The recommendation drew angry reactions from the church officials and leaders of various Christian organisations across the state. While the Kerala Catholic Youth Movement (KCYM) took to streets in several parts of the state to register their protests, bishops and priests lambasted the women’s panel chief.
Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC), the apex body of bishops representing the three Catholic rites, viewed it as part of a political agenda aimed at creating religious animosity and spreading tension and violence in the society. KCBC spokesperson Father Varghese Vallikkat saw the recommendation “based on one isolated case” as “irresponsible” and prompted by “ulterior motives.”
He said that the commission had not bothered to consider the theological, religious and psychological reasons for the sacrament, consult responsible persons or hear church authorities before deciding on a matter that it had no jurisdiction.
“Confession for Christian churches is a holy sacrament. It is the path for spiritual growth and eternal salvation. Confession has been in vogue in Christian Churches for centuries,” the priest said.
Syro-Malankara Catholic Church Major Archbishop and former president of Catholic Bishops Council of India (CBCI) Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, described the women’s panel’s recommendation as "a direct encroachment into the freedom of a believer."
"Article 25 of the Constitution provides rights to profess, practice and propagate religion. So, by proposing this abolition of confession, the NCW is encroaching on that freedom. I doubt if the Commission has such powers,” the prelate told the Indian Express.
Baselios said he was extremely anxious to know how the Central government would respond to the NCW recommendation.
Church activists do not blame the NCW for the recommendation. Advocate Indulekha Joseph, vice-chairperson of the Church Action Council, said that the situation for the NCW intervention in the issue was created by the church. She said that it was the result of the rampant misuse of the sacrament by the priests.
“When we pointed out the use of confession secret as a tool by section of the priests to sexually exploit women, Syro-Malabar Church head Cardinal George Alencherry tried to find fault with the women. He told us that only women who try to seduce the priests during confession were involved in the exploitation,” she said.
The Church Action Council has been demanding permission to nuns to administer the sacrament to women and children. The organization had last week organised a dharna before the state secretariat at Thiruvananthapuram to press the demand.
Joseph said that the misuse of confession secret by the priests could be checked to a great extend if nuns were permitted to perform it. She said that the Cardinal had not even responded to the representation they submitted to him in this regard.
“We have been demanding this for a long time now. We had launched a campaign to press the demand in the wake of the Malankara sex scandal. If church authorities had risen to the occasion, the NCW would not have called for abolition of confession,” said Joseph.
The Church Action Council which stand for reforms in the church had also suggested a return to the ancient method of ‘Pizhamoolal’, in which believers seek forgiveness by recounting their sins in their minds in the presence of a priest instead of making vocal confession to the priests.
“There is no need for the church to be sensitive about confession since Jesus had not given powers to his Apostles to pardon sins. The Bible asks the people only to repent. The custom was introduced in 13th century to hold the faithful together by enslaving their minds with fear,” she said.
The Open Church Movement, which has been demanding abolition of the confession system, has welcomed the NCW recommendation. Reji Njallani of the movement said that the misuse of the confession secret by the Orthodox priest was not an isolated incident.
"Priests in all denominations have been using the confessional secret to sexually exploit women and children. There have been several such incidents. The victims have not been reporting them due to fear of the consequences they have to suffer for antagonising the church," Reji said.
The case of the rape of a minor girl in Kannur district by a Catholic priest last year is a glaring example. The 16-year-old girl, who was raped by the priest and later got pregnant, blamed her father for her pregnancy to save the priest. The victims normally do not speak against the priests as they have conditioned their minds through confession. "The government should accept the NCW recommendation and immediately abolish the confession to save the women and children from exploitation. If the Constitution does not permit such intervention, it should be amended," said Reji.
Updated Date: Jul 28, 2018 08:10 AM