The recent alleged rape of a minor girl by a vicar and what appears to be an attempted institutional cover up in Kerala has brought the Catholic Church under fire yet again. The vicar was an influential priest who had held important offices of power and the Church had apparently used its various apparatuses to protect him from the law.
This is not the first time that the Syro Malabar Church, the largest congregation of Catholics in the state, is at the centre of controversy. Over the years, many of its priests have been accused of various sexual offences and rights violations, and its institutions of cover-ups. Some have been punished by law, but many have managed to escape as the vicar in the latest rape case nearly did.
The main accused in the case is Father Robin Vadakkumchery, the priest of the St. Sebastian Church in the state's northern district of Kannur, and the survivor, a 16-year-old girl from a poor family that belongs to the same parish. Allegedly, the priest had been sexually exploiting the girl for a long time and the family came to know about it only when the girl became pregnant. Following this, a cover-up plan seems to have been set in motion by the priest, backed by Church-run institutions.
Unfortunately, every time there is a dissenting voice or a charge of abuse or illegality, the Church tends to be more insular and defensive.
The pregnant girl was sent to a hospital under the Church, and when she gave birth, the child was transferred to an orphanage, also run by the Church. The secrecy was watertight and the story might have ended there but for an anonymous letter received by the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) of the district. The CWC privately investigated the case and informed the police. When the priest came to know of these developments, he made a futile attempt to escape to Canada, reportedly in connivance with some in the Church.
The attempted cover-up didn't end there. Local media reported that the father of the girl, a poor farmer, was offered money to own up to the crime; even the girl apparently agreed to implicate him. However, police interrogations revealed that the real criminal was the priest and that there was all-round pressure from the Church on the family. The priest was arrested even as he was plotting to flee.
The Church's complicity in the case is undeniable, and there were multiple points where it violated the law of the land and even its own rules. When the child was admitted to the hospital for her delivery, the authorities should have informed the police because she was a minor. They didn't. Legal procedures were also violated in the transfer of the newborn to a Church-run orphanage. Compliance with the law would have automatically ensured the arrest of Father Robin, his expulsion from the Church, and a series of mitigation efforts to normalise the life of the survivor.
What's most worrying is the atmosphere of increasing conservatism that abets secrecy, religious fundamentalism, suppression of truth and illegality, including sexual crimes, among the Christian clergy.
In this case, the survivor was not only raped multiple times, but also was subjected to intimidation and other forms of psychological violence to keep quiet. With the law taking its course, the Syro Malabar Church may find it difficult to wash its hands off the cover-up this time. Indeed, had it been compliant with the law earlier, this incident (and perhaps others) might have been prevented. Reportedly, Father Robin had allegedly tried to molest a minor girl 20 years ago when he was the assistant manager of a Church-run school, but was untouched either by the Church or by law. It's anybody's guess how many more girls he may have victimised in the ensuing years.
The problem is of power, increasing religious conservatism and the insularity of the Church—the Catholic Church in particular. Even after the latest hit, it's unwilling to relent and admit that something is wrong in its house. It is continuing to argue that there are more than 9000 priests and this is a stray case. However, it's hardly a one-off—there have a multitude of allegations of sexual exploitation and rights violations by the priests and nuns of various dioceses.
Early this year, an elderly priest who was also the principal of a school in Ernakulam district, was arrested for child abuse while another priest was alleged to be responsible for the suicide of a nun. Several cases were reported last year as well. While one priest was handed a double imprisonment sentence for the rape of a minor, another was arrested for the alleged rape and murder of a college girl. There was also a widely reported case of sexual abuse in a theological school in Kannur.
These cases are only the tip of the iceberg, because cover-ups seem to be the norm as the latest incident indicates. Had the girl not become pregnant and had a baby, the case wouldn't have been brought to light. The girl would have continued to suffer, and the priest could have abused others because of the atmosphere of secrecy and tolerance within the house. In fact, last year a bishop and three others were arrested, not for a crime per se, but for covering it up.
Interestingly, whistleblowers' accounts abound in the state about the serious rot within the Church. A former priest Shibu Kalamparambil was scathing in his account of the sexual abuse and corruption in the Church in his biography. A teacher-nun for three decades, Sister Jesme, who is very popular in the local media for her critical views on the Catholic Church, also wrote an autobiography in which she graphically described the sexual abuse suffered by nuns. In 2012, another nun of 40 years, Sister Mary, came out with her story, in which she described in vivid detail the extreme pain she had to endure during her tenure with the Church—her ordeal included physical and psychological oppression, sexual abuse and harassment for sticking to her values.
Unfortunately, every time there is a dissenting voice or a charge of abuse or illegality, the Church tends to become even more insular and defensive. It's obvious that the Church's instinct is to cover up rather than address issues. This is highly concerning because of the enormous political, social and economic power the Church wields.
What's most worrying is the atmosphere of increasing conservatism that abets secrecy, religious fundamentalism, suppression of truth and illegality including sexual crimes among the Christian clergy. Conservatism and socio-political authority are the tools that the Church—not just the Catholics, but also other denominations— uses to insulate its institution and control its believers. In December last, a leading Malayalam literary weekly had to withdraw its copies from the newsstand because an illustration on the cover and a painting inside the magazine angered the Church. A priest from a Catholic channel shocked the state when he said that girls wearing jeans and t-shirts should be drowned in the sea because they aroused men. He even said that he felt like kicking some women out of the church because of their attire. Another priest took on writer Benyamin, a hugely popular man in Kerala, because he criticised Catholic priests.
It remains to be seen if the latest case opens up the Church to public scrutiny. It will be highly unfortunate if it doesn't because a rights-violative religious institution with political power and social control is inconsistent with the otherwise progressive polity of the state.