Rape by priests. Blackmailing canons. Lying Cardinals. Nuns selling babies. The rot within the Indian church has spilt out, provoking intense introspection and call for reform from within the clergy and the laity.
The faithful are shaken and sin has been outed. The halo of the Church is losing its sheen following a series of sex scandals and baby trafficking accusations that have erupted over the past month. Fingers are being pointed at the men of god in Kerala for allegedly raping a nun and a married woman. They violated the sanctity of the confessional and blackmailed an innocent woman for sex. The shady involvement of a bishop supposed to act as a spiritual guide to the diocese makes their crimes even more serious.
Subsequently, the hagiography of India’s Christianity was tainted by none other than nuns of the order founded by India’s venerated famous Catholic saint, Mother Teresa. Sr Concelia and Anima Indwar of Nirmal Hriday in Ranchi, Jharkhand, were arrested early this month for allegedly selling infants for adoption; one baby was reportedly sold to a couple for `50,000. The Jharkhand Police released Sr Concelia’s video confession. Of the Seven Deadly Sins, Lust and Greed have captured the ecumenical spotlight. Last month, Pope Francis divested Cardinal George Mar Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, of his administrative powers following allegations of corruption in a land scam. The domino effect of the scandals has exposed the powerful Church’s dark side, where political parties and politicians use Christian congregations as vote-banks. And the Church draws immunity from the electoral advantage it provides and the funds it raises.
One of the cardinal tenets of the Church is that what passes between a priest and his flock in a confessional booth are secrets the priest will take to the grave. It is also how absolution is sought and received, and penance prescribed. This belief was shaken when a 36-year-old married woman from Thiruvalla, Kerala, revealed to her husband that she was being sexually blackmailed by Father Job Mathew, the vicar of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, with threats of disclosure of her confession details—a sexual relationship with Fr Abraham Varghese when she was 17 years old, before and after he was ordained. The curate had also shared the details with two other canonical colleagues, Fr Johnson V Mathew and Fr Jaise K George who also reportedly raped her. She said a total of five priests had raped her over many years.
Unusual bank transactions from her bank account had alerted her husband, especially a deduction of `9,600 from her savings account towards settling a bill from a five-star hotel in Kochi. When confronted, she broke down, confessing that one of the holy blackmailers had taken her to the hotel for a tryst. She presented call details, chat history, social media accounts and bank statements. The husband pardoned her but petitioned Church authorities seeking action against the curates in vain. Disgusted, he went public. Fr Johnson V Mathew was arrested on July 13 but is on bail. He had surrendered to the police after the High Court first dismissed the anticipatory bail plea of three priests, observing they acted as “predators” and took “undue advantage” of the woman. Fr Abraham Varghese and Fr Jaise K George successfully moved the Supreme Court to get a stay order on their arrest until such time their petition is disposed. Fr Job Mathew too got bail from Kerala High Court last week.
In Jharkhand, it was greed not lust that possessed the sisters of Mother Teresa’s order. At the behest of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) in Ranchi, police filed an FIR on July 3 against Sister Concelia and Anima Indwar for child trafficking. “Our inquiry showed that four children from Nirmal Hriday were sold between 2017 and 18. The Chief Minister has ordered the Chairman of the Child Rights Commission to inspect all homes running in the state. Inspection of the shelter register showed details of 58 other children have not been placed before CWC yet. The organisation hasn’t produced the record register prior to year 2016 either,” says District Social Welfare Officer Kanchan Singh. Meanwhile, the Crime Investigation Department is on the job. “Investigation is on to further verify the records seized from Nirmal Hriday,” says Anish Gupta, SSP, Ranchi.
To keep the flock, the Church in Kerala went into damage control mode. Moran Mor Baselios Mar Thoma Paulose II, Catholicos and the supreme head of the Indian Orthodox Church, issued a pastoral note to its clergy and laity on July 5, warning that priests found to have committed a sin will not be protected by the Church. The Catholicos said, “The Church should move ahead with the holiness of piety. And never let the sacraments like holy confession be taken frivolously. The holy sacraments, being handed over by the fathers, should be followed with holiness.”
The inevitable political factor entered the sordid picture. The ruling Left had just won a by-election held in Chengannur Assembly constituency, with the support of the Orthodox Church. The government insisted on a written complaint before taking action. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s bête noire and former Communist CM V S Achuthanandan promptly lodged a complaint with the Director General of Police (Law and Order) putting the government in a spot. The State Crime Branch was forced to register a case and the two priests surrendered.
Then another sex scandal surfaced; this time involving a Bishop of the Catholic Church. A 44-year-old nun accused Franco Mullakkal of the Latin Catholic Church of Jalandhar of raping her 13 times during 2014-16 at the Mission House in Kottayam run by the Missionaries of Jesus. She had approached church authorities at first, including Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. After being given the run around, she contacted the police, who registered the case and started an investigation. It was also around a year ago that Fr Robin Vadakkumchery of the diocese of Mananthavady was arrested for molesting and impregnating a minor girl in Kottiyoor in Kannur district.
“Regrettably, that the Church continues to support these criminals even after their crimes are proved beyond any doubt. This sends a strong message encouraging others in the fraternity to follow in the footsteps of the wrongdoers,” says Sister Jesme, who wrote Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun, on her humiliation, sexual abuse and mental torture by men of the cloth. Former Kerala State Police Chief T P Senkumar agrees. “Many unfit persons join the Church as priests since the Church has a problem of getting more recruits,” he adds. When indifference didn’t succeed in silencing the Thiruvalla woman, intimidation followed. Her husband claims he was approached by the accused priests, their representatives and some high profile personalities to withdraw the case or face ostracism. When the ultimatum failed, he was promised money and other benefits to withdraw the case.
Similarly, representatives from Jalandhar diocese and Missionaries of Jesus arrived in Kottayam to influence the nun who had complained about the bishop. When she refused to meet them, she was accused of immorality. The Church strategy in Fr Robin’s case was also character assassination of the victim. However, sexual harassment allegations against priests are exceptional cases in the Syro-Malabar Church, which insists on celibacy for priests. Meanwhile, canonical robes are splashed with mud. Faced with rape accusations, Fr Abraham Varghese played dirty. He uploaded a video on YouTube shaming his accuser and questioned the authenticity of her complaint. A leaked phone conversation between Cardinal George Alencherry and the nun who raised rape allegations against Bishop Franco has put the Cardinal in a tight spot. He had been all along maintaining his ignorance of the rape complaint against the bishop and had told the media that the nun had only spoken to him about some issues in her diocese. The wiretap confirmed he was being untruthful.
Faith becomes the victim when the shepherd becomes the hunter. The morale of both the Malankara Orthodox Church laity and clergymen has hit an all-time low, following back-to-back allegations of fund misappropriation, land scams and rape by some priests. “I don't trust them anymore and do not consider them representatives of God. They have lost their credibility. I won’t be attending mass anymore,” says Giby Kurien from Kochi.
According to a Jacobite priest, believers used to treat curates with great respect before the scandals. “Everyone looks at us suspiciously today. I even find it difficult to say mass. It has become a trial,” he laments. He normally refrains from settling marital disputes now. “Where only my presence is absolutely required, I ensure that at least five to six members of the church committee are present,” he adds. Some parishioners believe they have become the laughing stock of the community. According to Remani Varghese of the Orthodox Church, if a woman is seen talking to a priest today, it is assumed something shady is happening. However, she believes the scandals are not the right scale to measure the sanctity of spiritual belief. “There is a saying that it takes two hands to clap.”
Sony Koithara, a Kottayam-based follower of the Orthodox Church, wants the maximum punishment for rape to be meted out to the culprits; a sentiment shared by a majority of the laity. The Church has been forced to act tough. The accused priests have been relieved of all pastoral responsibilities and sent on compulsory leave. The Church is also conducting an inquiry at their respective dioceses. “The Church won’t give legal assistance to the priests and won’t intervene in the Crime Branch inquiry,” says Fr M O John, priest trustee.
According to Kerala Police data, 63 Christian priests in the state faced criminal charges, which included rape, murder, molestation, assault and abduction between 2000 and 2007.Fr Paul Thelakkatt, a senior priest and former spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church, has only ecclesiastical explanations to offer. “The Bible speaks about a man who commits sin and seeks God’s forgiveness. Even the great King David confessed to rape before God. Judas betrayed Jesus. Once man forsakes holiness he ends up in tragedy. This is the situation in the Church now,” he says. The lure of money and power draws many young men to a canonical career. “A vast majority of priests and nuns have taken their vows to earn money and respect. They pollute the system, which should be cleansed sooner than later,” says Sr Jesme. “Even an orphanage is a source of revenue for the Church, which has become a corporate institution now,” she adds.
A senior church member complains that the Church does not punish errant clergy, which only encourages them to commit more crimes. Says KC Varghese, a church reform campaigner, “It’s time to reform the selection process for the priesthood. The priesthood has become a well-paid job with perks and is no longer a spiritual vocation. Kerala Catholics Bishop's Council (KCBC) has issued strict guidelines for priests while dealing with minors and women. “If any priest deviates and breaks the ethical code of behaviour, we will take action. It is up to them to decide. We cannot look into the minds of each priest and check whether they are pious or not,” says Fr Varghese Vallikkatt, Deputy Secretary-General, KCBC. It is not everyone who starts their priestly training becomes clerics. “We’ve been dismissing many people who were found to be untruthful to their spiritual calling.”
Innocence defines the spiritual calling in Christianity, with Baby Jesus in the manger and in the arms of the Madonna as the faith’s cardinal symbols of purity. However, it was not so for the members of Nirmal Hriday in Jharkhand. The Missionaries of Charity, Kolkata, however, blames the CWC for harassing nuns. “For reasons unknown, our Shishu Bhawan Home at Hinoo was raided by CWC with a police force on July 06, 2018. It is distressing that CWC has meted out such treatment to a Home, which its officials themselves have described as providing an ‘excellent environment for the care of children’ only about two weeks before.”
Sister M Prema MC, Superior General, Mother House, Kolkata, confesses the organisation is deeply saddened by the developments at Nirmal Hriday. “Even while we place our full trust in the judicial process that is underway, we express regret and sorrow for what happened and unequivocally condemn individual actions that have nothing to do with the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity.”
When Jesus came to Temple at Jerusalem, he drove out the corrupt and the corrupters, calling it “a den of thieves”. The Church is not a den of vice, but house cleaning is certainly in order.
Crime and the Mission
1985 Fr George Cherian is charged for the murder of a teenage girl when she resisted an alleged rape attempt
1988 Roman Catholic priest Antony Lazar, 49, and his aide Nelson alias Sasi, 30, are awarded a death sentence by a local court in Kollam for the murder of Marykutty, a 27-year-old nurse
1992 The sensational murder of Sister Abhaya in Kottayam in which the CBI chargesheets two priests and two nuns
2014 A young priest of Thrissur diocese is arrested for raping a nine-year-old girl
2015 A case is registered against Catholic priest Edwin Figarez for raping a minor girl from the community.
The Catholic Church in Kerala pays `12 lakh to Sister Anita, a nun who had alleged that a priest tried to sexually abuse her in 2011 when she was working as a high school teacher in Panchore in Madhya Pradesh. According to Sr Anita, when she complained to the Mother Superior, she was reprimanded, isolated and shipped to Italy.
2016 A Catholic priest from Kerala is sentenced to a rare double life imprisonment under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act for the rape of a minor girl.
2017 A 48-year-old priest, Robin Vadakkumchery of Mananthavady diocese, is arrested on charges of raping a minor girl
Holy Disgrace Worldwide
Cardinal George Pell, the third highest member of the Vatican hierarchy, has been ordered to stand trial on “multiple” historical sex charges, which he denies. His case coincided with a public enquiry that found that seven percent of priests were presumed to have committed paedophilic acts in Australia between 1950 and 2010.
Two scandals forced the Vatican to revoke two high-ranking ultra-conservative clerics, Viennese Archbishop Hans Hermann Groer in 1995 and the bishop of Sankt-Poelten, Kurt Krenn in 2004.
In 2010, the bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned after acknowledging sex abuse of two nephews. Since 2012, the Catholic Church in Belgium has received hundreds of complaints and paid almost €4.13 million in compensation.
In the late 1980s, a huge scandal broke out regarding the mistreatment of children at an orphanage in Newfoundland in the 1950s-1960s.
Some 80 members of the Chilean clergy have been implicated in a series of sex abuse affairs over the past few years. Controversy over bishop Juan Barros, accused of covering for a paedophile priest, marred Pope Francis’ trip to the country in January 2018 when he hugged and defended the bishop.
In 2016, the case of priest Bernard Preynat, accused of abusing scouts in his Lyon parish, tainted the image of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin for allegedly covering up for him. Barbarin will be tried along with six co-defendants in January 2019.
Since 2010, hundreds of cases of sex abuse against children or adolescents in religious institutions have emerged. The most high-profile ones involve Jesuit-run Canisius College in Berlin.
Ireland Accusations against Catholic institutions began to emerge early in the millennium, and covered several decades prior to that. The number of underaged victims was estimated at around 14,500. Several bishops and priests accused of committing or covering up the abuse have been punished.
Mexico Mexican bishop Gonzalo Galvan Castillo was forced to resign in 2015 after being accused of protecting a paedophile priest. The late founder of the ultraconservative Legion of Christ congregation, Marcial Maciel, was forced to resign in 2006, was accused of committing sexual abuses of minors.
In late 2011, a study found that several tens of thousands of minors had been sexually abused within the Dutch Catholic Church institutions between 1945 and 2010. Some 800 suspects have been identified.
In 2013, Pope Francis sacked the Vatican nuncio, or ambassador, to the Dominican Republic, Poland’s Jozef Wesolowski who was charged with sexually abusing minors. He died in 2015 on the eve of his trial.
Between 1950 and 2013, the Catholic Church in the US received 17,000 complaints from people who said they had suffered sexual abuse from 6,400 clerics between 1950 and 1980. In 2012, specialists in contact with the Vatican mooted the figure of 100,000 cases of child sex abuse in the US. Among the senior church members forced to resign for protecting paedophile priests were Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston and Roger Mahony in Los Angeles.
Church Factions in Kerala
Apostle St Thomas is believed to have established Christianity in Malankara (Kerala) in AD 52, and it got organised and prospered with the arrival of Knai Thoma (Bishop of Cana) from Syria in AD 345. Result: the Christians of Malankara came to be known as Syrian Christians, as they received the Apostolic benediction from the Syrian Patriarchate and thus started to use the liturgy of the Holy Syrian Church of Antioch.
A vertical split in 1911 divided the Malankara Church into two groups—one led by the Mor Dionysius Geevarghese (Vattasseril) came to be called as ‘Metran Kakshi’ (Bishop’s Party) and those who continued with the Holy throne of Antioch were mentioned as ‘Bava Kakshi’ (Patriarch’s Party).
While the ‘Bava Kakshi’ continued to be known as Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church, the ‘Methran Kakshi’ by the middle of the 1920s adopted the name first as ‘Orthodox Syrian Church of Malabar’ and then ‘Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church’ in 1934.
Syro-Malabar Church and Latin Church
Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is the major denomination in Kerala. The Latin Catholic Church is the second largest Christian denomination in the state. The Latin Church was formed with the arrival of Portuguese in the 15th century and differences within the church later led to the formation of Syro-Malabar Church in 1923. However, both denominations follow Roman rites and are in full communion with the Pope.
While Bishop Franco Mulakkal and the nun, who lodged a complaint against him, belonged to Syro-Malabar Church by birth, they now serve for Jalandhar diocese of the Latin Church.
With inputs from Anu Kuruvilla and Niraj Sahai