It is no consolation that the media also covers the sexual peccadilloes of Hindu savants including Shankaracharyas and even those who think of themselves as avatars of God. And while sex and sexuality have been much discussed within the Church and outside in the wake of the crisis in Ireland, Germany, the UK and the US, I must admit it came as a great shock to the Church and to ordinary Christians when Outlook in its July 23, 2012, edition ran a cover with the lurid headline, ‘Sex Scandal and the Church’, with the publicity photograph of a rather bad actress playing a nun in what promises to be a salacious film, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
Patently, it is no longer a matter of hushed rumours or jokes in seminaries and lay meetings. Morals and morality amongst priests and nuns is cause for deep concern. Though small and perhaps marginal at present, it may grow to threaten the Church in the 21st century if urgent remedial action is not taken. A state of denial will not do, nor a conspiracy of silence in a highly structured, hierarchical Church. It is also not a problem for the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church alone, or of the Latin Catholic Church. Protestant, Evangelical and even Pentecostal churches, which do not enforce celibacy in the clergy like the Catholic church does, grapple with their own demons of corruption and moral turpitude.
Self-appointed protectors of the Church in some places have raised the bogey of persecution by the media. They see in it an outrage and a conspiracy. Some senior Catholic and Protestant bishops, including contemporary thinkers such as Bishop Joab Lohara of a Methodist Church denomination, also point out that the magazine expose comes at a time when the Indian right-wing and fundamentalist groups have been mounting a campaign against the Church. A look at the Organiser and Panchajanya, official organs of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is evidence of this. Sanghi trolls are on my neck on my Twitter account.
The Church is indeed under sustained attack, and persecution rages, specially in states such as Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, even Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. The body politic and governments at the Centre and in the states show an increasing tendency to put curbs on the Church as a political strategy to curry favour with the majority votebank. Witness the increasing clamour for anti-conversion laws in several states. Even in Maharashtra and other states where there is no anti-conversion law, pastors are routinely harassed by the police and civil administration, accused of trying to convert people. The Union government does not give visas to internal guests of the Church. The denial of constitutional rights to Dalit Christians and the utter miscarriage of justice to the victims of the violence in Kandhamal in 2007 and 2008 are a case in point. It does not matter which political party rules—even the Congress governments are guilty. The BJP governments, of course, lead the pack.
We are not responding with references to Mother Teresa whose love for the poor puts her in the list of top 10 Indians after Mahatma Gandhi. Or to St Stephen’s and Loyola Colleges or the Vellore Christian Medical College. But it is proper to remind the Indian people of the work done by missionaries, priests, nuns and others. This is not to claim any special dispensation, or even as a boast, but just as a plain reminder, as a duty done to the homeland and its people. A part of the calling that any good Christian, following in the footsteps of Christ, would do. It would also be important to remind the media in general and Outlook in particular that sensationalism can tarnish the image of communities and institutions, and that the sins of a few ought not to be vested upon the rest of the Church. The damage has been done, and a mere apology alone won’t do. Perhaps we need a future cover on this silent but industrious minority whose wealth isn’t in the steel or diamond industries but in the smile of its fellow citizens.
But the Church too has to take steps. A group of Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches has come together to address issues of corruption and alienation of property as evil not just under the Indian Penal Code but more so in the eyes of God. Church leaders must accept that such things happen, though not in the alarming manner Outlook’s cover made it seem. We ought to analyse the reasons, and it cannot be just as simple as celibacy and ‘clericality’ as being the root cause of all sexual crimes. In the big wide world, married men rape, some of them rape little children. Some of them are ministers, politicians, scientists, policemen, artistes and journalists. This holds true among Muslims, Buddhists and, most of all, Hindus, because of the sheer large numbers, as several TV programmes have shown. Some may have forgotten that the Weekly and Blitz, now defunct, did cover stories on the late Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi, accusing him of homosexuality. It is besides the point that its editor, R.K. Karanjia, later became a bhakta of the godman.
I mention these to assure the hierarchy they are not an exception. The exposition in the West by media, including Catholic journals, over the last few years of paedophilia and child abuse has made the state apparatus intervene. But the Church hierarchy has to take its decisions in India. It needs authentic data for this. Former chief justice of India S.P. Bharucha has famously said that 20 per cent of the Indian judiciary is corrupt. Anna Hazare says every politician is corrupt, including the new President of India. I know of many journalists who are very corrupt. We expect zero tolerance in the Church, but priests too are human beings and the temptations of the flesh can be strong.
Fr R.S. Pinto responded to my intervention in a Google group, pointing out that “no Catholic likes to hear about these things, said or published...no one will take pleasure in these things. It’s abhorrent. But though we are less than three per cent, the work done by yesteryear’s missionaries in setting up schools and colleges, hospitals, orphanages and homes for the destitute is probably unparalleled. But all that is past. The victims [who wrote their books] must have tried to get justice within the Church first, before writing their books, without success. Many in the leadership want to sweep everything under the carpet. They consider the image of Church as paramount...at any cost the image should not be sullied, even if that means shielding the guilty.”
Communications expert Allwyn Fernandes, often a critic of the Church, told me, “There is enough good work that has been done to stand out amidst the filth. Let us rather work to flush out the filth than try to hide it further.” I feel strongly that the ordinary Christian and Catholic does not want to defend the indefensible. But he abhors sensationalism of the sort Outlook indulged in.
The people want the leadership to be more open and provide space for suggestions towards improvement. Work needs to begin from the very beginning. We know that the vocation is falling, and is now almost limited to the tribal belts. But even in times of scarcity, a certain level of filtering has to be done. The candidate is the building block of the Church. The seminary is where that block is moulded. If the foundations are strong, the products of these seminaries will be worthy of their training and of their vows.
I think it’s time strong signals came from the Indian Church hierarchy, as they have come from Rome. Perhaps zero tolerance may not be possible day after tomorrow, but it is a laudable target and needs to be pursued. The first step would be a roving enquiry, including social scientists, human resource experts and theologians, and a sprinkling of those with some forensic experience. That would be a good beginning. And it needs to be done before the State, for ulterior motives, intervenes, or the media mocks us for TRPS and circulation.
(Dr John Dayal, member, National Integration Council, is past national president of the All-India Catholic Union and secretary-general of the All-India Christian Council.)