Later this month, the Vatican will hold, for the first time ever, a global Bishops meeting to prevent clerical sex abuse. Pope Francis called for the summit while facing a storm of allegations against Catholic priests across the world. Many clerics in multiple countries, including India, have been accused of sexually abusing children and vulnerable adults or enabling such abuse. Such a meeting is unprecedented in the history of the Catholic Church.
Ahead of the four-day meeting starting 21 February, the organising committee sent a letter urging all the participants to meet survivors of abuse. “The first step must be acknowledging the truth of what has happened,” the letter says, and that without a comprehensive response, the healing of victim-survivors cannot take place. “For this reason, we urge each episcopal conference president to reach out and visit with victim-survivors of clergy sex abuse in your respective countries prior to the meeting in Rome, to learn first-hand the suffering that they have endured,” the letter adds.
With only a few days to go for the summit, the Catholic representatives from some other countries, like Ireland, have already met victims. The Archbishop in Ireland issued a statement that he was “privileged to meet with victims and survivors of abuse and members of their families, and would take with him the survivors’ message of the “need for the Church to be open to justice, to atone and never forget”.
There is no such statement from Catholic representatives in India, and no news of any of church authorities having met any survivors. Two emails have been sent to Cardinal Oswald Gracias of the Bombay Diocese, who signed the letter suggesting that the bishops visit victims, asking if such meetings were held in India. This article will be updated when he replies.
Indian church officials have not met abuse survivors
Several cases of sexual abuse in the church have come to light from across India. Many reports, including an investigation by AP, have uncovered decades-long sexual abuse faced by nuns, and the unending backlash if they try to fight off advances or complain.
In 2016, a 46-year-old nun who accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar of sexually abusing and raping her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. The nun is a member of the congregation Missionaries of Jesus, headquartered in Jalandhar, Punjab, but it runs two convents in Kerala. Although some nuns are in solidarity with the complainant, she is under grave threat from her congregation, which has protected Mulakkal, released her photograph sitting with him to raise questions about her character, and attempted to transfer those who help and support her.
There was a proposition for the survivor nun to meet the Cardinal personally in Mumbai, but when it was considered unsafe for her to travel from her police-secured convent in Kuruvilangad, the Cardinal's office made no further commitments to visit her before the Rome meeting.
“This is the first such meeting on abuse, and I’m aware it will take a long time for things to change,” says Virginia Saldanha, a Mumbai-based former official in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) who has worked on women’s issues within the church. Saldanha will be attending the Rome sexual abuse meeting on invitation from a global survivors’ network. “The right steps have to be taken towards delivering justice, at least now. And that starts with respecting survivors and listening to them. Not meeting them is to promote the existing culture of silence.”
Meanwhile, church officials do reach out to the clergy they want to support. Several bishops made a beeline to visit Bishop Franco Mullakal in prison. Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of the Bishops’ Conference (CBCI), wrote a heartfelt account of visiting a Mother Teresa Sister, Concelia Baxla, in a Jharkhand prison, where she has been held for over 200 days under charges of child trafficking. He writes about being moved to “helplessness” and “self-reproach” seeing her hardships in jail, and being stunned by her selfless worries about bringing “shame to the church”. It is clear that meeting Sister Concelia left him emotional. He writes that she is innocent – despite publicly professing faith in the Indian judiciary.
Without meaning to take away or demean the pain of Sister Concelia, it is difficult not to notice the CBCI secretary general’s comparatively unsympathetic and administrative tone in a statement on the survivor nun in the Mulakkal case. In a letter dated 15 September 2018, he simply says “the law should take its course” and that “a just solution will be found”.
Perhaps it is time the CBCI officials visited Kuravilangad too, to meet the survivor nun, who, like Sister Concelia, also spent a lifetime in selfless service to the Catholic church.
No recourse for vulnerable women
The Rome meeting was supposed to be on the theme of “protecting minors and vulnerable adults”, but early this year, the Pope has had to rein in expectations. “I permit myself to say that I’ve perceived a bit of an inflated expectation,” Francis told reporters in late January. “We need to deflate the expectations.” He called the meeting only the first step in a 15-year-long journey.
One of the implications of the deflated expectations, says Saldanha, is that the meeting will now only discuss child sexual abuse. “This is very disappointing. The Pope had earlier admitted that religious women are among the most vulnerable to abuse.”
There has long been an imbalance of power in the church, with nuns and sisters always at the lower end of the hierarchy. The system of management mandates a subservient role for religious women, reflecting the dominance of men over women in larger societal patriarchal structures. Adding to the subservience and a distorted notion of obedience among women, the properties of religious women are also being systematically taken over or controlled by bishops, thus aggravating their financial dependence.
There is evidence to show that the modern day church has internalised and normalised patriarchal dominance, and even presented it divinely sanctioned. Any questioning by nuns is interpreted as bringing shame to the church. Such complainants are discredited and then silenced without any institutional redressal mechanism.
Even if the Rome meeting were limited to abuse of underage girls and boys, church officials in India have not worked towards that either. On 16 February, 51-year-old Robin Vadakumcherry, a Catholic priest from Kannur was convicted for raping and impregnating a minor and sentenced to 20 years in prison. During the two-year-long trial, the family faced extreme pressure from the church, which led to the girl’s father claiming responsibility for the rape and impregnation of his own minor daughter. Her mother turned a hostile witness, insisting her daughter was 18 at the time of the rape. Finally, the priest was able to be convicted when the DNA tests of the complainant’s baby proved paternity.
Even after legal justice has been delivered, there is no doubt that the survivor and her family face a life-long battle. The verdict came just days ago, fortunately in advance of the Rome meeting, but no authority from the bishops’ conference in India has visited the survivor or her family.
The approach of the Roman Catholic Church in India seems to be tokenism, making the right noises publicly, while attempting to silence and intimidate the faithful in private. The hypocrisy has thwarted healing and justice, not just for the survivors but for the entire Christian community. The urge to belong to the Church makes close-knit Catholic communities hesitate to show any solidarity to survivors against the will of the church. In acknowledging and addressing complaints and complainants, the Church will not only liberate itself from sexual crime but also foster a more inclusive, loving and just community.
Anita Cheria is the director of OpenSpace, a policy research and campaign support organisation. Rohini Mohan is an independent journalist.
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Updated Date: Feb 18, 2019 13:40:09 IST