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The Sins Of Our Fathers

Sex crimes come with a tinge of holy terror when clergymen prey on the laity. An institutional response can’t be different from a Christian one. Why then does India’s Catholic Church not walk its pious talk?

The Sins Of Our Fathers
Photograph by Getty Images
The Sins Of Our Fathers
outlookindia.com
2017-01-21T12:53:38+0530

We hear these children and their cries of pain; we also hear the cry of the Church our Mother, who weeps not only for the pain caused to her youngest sons and daughters, but also because she recognizes the sins of some of her members: the sufferings, the experiences and the pain of minors who were abused sexually by priests. It is a sin that shames us. Persons responsible for the protection of those children destroyed their dignity. We regret this deeply and we beg forgiveness. We join in the pain of the victims and weep for this sin. The sin of what happened, the sin of failing to help, the sin of covering up and denial, the sin of the abuse of power. The Church also weeps bitterly over this sin of her sons and she asks forgiveness. Today, as we commemorate the feast of the Holy Innocents, I would like us to renew our complete commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place in our midst. Let us find the courage needed to take all necessary measures and to protect in every way the lives of our children, so that such crimes may never be repeated. In this area, let us adhere, clearly and faithfully, to “zero tolerance”.

Excerpts of the letter written by Pope Francis to Bishops all over the world, released on January 2, 2017, expressing regret and begging for forgiveness for crimes against children, asking them to show zero tolerance to such crimes.

***

He (Jesus) made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and the oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables and to those who sold doves he said, take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

- John 2:15-16, The Bible

***

Hardly 10 kilometres from Kodungallur, Kerala, where St Thomas the apostle is believed to have first set foot and brought the teachings of Jesus Christ to the Indian shores in 52 AD, lies the village of Puthenvelikkara. This is a world unto itself, a long way off from the Vatican, where the Pope wrote his remarkable Letter to Bishops on the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28, speaking of “the Herods of our time”. A bylane that leads to the Lourde Matha Church turns off from the Puthenvelikkara police station, and runs along the Periyar river, twisting through a thick canopy of trees. A meditative quietude cloaks the air. But it is deceptive—for, even today, anger and sadness overwhelm the laity of the Lourde Matha church. The sanctity of the church had been violen­tly desecrated by the vile deeds of its former vicar. From January to March, 2015, Fr Edwin Figarez, 41, the then vicar of the church, had raped a 14-year-old girl several times in the presbytery in the church precincts. Despicably enough, it is reported, he had used the confessional chamber to entice the girl to his room.

When the child’s parents discovered this horror, they asked the Latin Catholic Bishop of the Kotta­puram diocese, Joseph Karikkassery, to defrock Figarez, and not allow him to say mass. Figarez was immediately suspended by the bishop. But to everyone’s dismay, perhaps in an act of disobedie­nce, the priest celebrated the mass on March 29, Palm Sunday. This is a holy day for Christians, which celebrates the humble entry of Jesus on a donkey into Jerusalem, a symbolic act, days before the cru­cifixion. That he was allowed to say the holy mass was repugnant to many in the congregation. On April 1, 2015, with the backing of a few of the church members, the mother of the victim filed a complaint at the Puthenvelikkara police station. A year and half later, on December 8, 2016, a special court in Ernakulam found Figarez guilty and sentenced him to double imprisonment under various sections of the IPC and the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act.

It was not the first conviction for a priest under the POCSO Act in Kerala. In the recent past, the number of cases against priests has been rising—an indication that the faithful, who have been suffering in silence, are no longer willing to keep quiet. In both Figarez’s case as well as another one in Thrissur—that of Fr Raju Kokken—the mothers of the victims filed complaints in the respective police stations and they refused to budge in the face of isolation by the community or pressure from the church.

An hour’s drive from Puthenvelikkara, which is in Ernakulam district, is St Paul’s Church in Thaikkattussery, Thrissur. This is where Fr Kokken, 40, the church vicar, sexually molested a 9-year-old girl after promising her a dress for her first holy communion. On April 24, 2014, a case was registered against him. Kokken, who had fled the place, was later arrested from Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu. He was released on bail, and the case is now in the first additional and district sessions court, Thrissur.

A priest erring is unthinkable, for he is seen in the Catholic Church as Jesus Christ’s representative. Casting doubts on his character is blasphemous since his position is next to God.

In the gathering dusk, on the steps of the Lourde Matha Church, an anguished Gracious, 58, long-time church member, can hardly contain his tears. “I have worked hard to build this church and I have many priests as friends. But I am not willing to bow down to such atrocities. I am an ordinary believer and I know this is not Jesus’s teachings. Most of us have become slaves to religion. From when we are small, we have been taught it is the biggest sin to stand up against the church or the priests. And there is no way out of this. If your child does not go to Sunday School, he/she does not get admission to the Catholic-run colleges. The Sunday School certificate is needed even for marriage. Our lives revolve around the church.”

“Fr Figarez managed to divide this church down the middle because we are taught to believe what the priest says is the absolute truth. Many continue to blame the child and not the priest,” Gracious adds, his voice breaking. And then, with the tone of disgust rising, “They break our backs to collect money from us for their lavish lifestyles. The rot has set in because of the wealth of the churches. That needs to be stemmed first. What moral right do these priests have to stand and give us sermons?” Figarez had managed to convince many church members of his innocence and, in fact, even attempted to malign the girl’s character and that of the mother.

In the Catholic Church, the priest is seen as a representative of Christ on earth and his position is next to God. So a priest erring is unthinkable and voicing such a suspicion is often viewed as blasph­emy. This theological position of the Catholic Church is slightly different from that of the Eastern Orthodox Churches (Jacobite, Orthodox, Mar Thoma, etc) and the Anglican Churches, where the priest represents the people and appeals and prays to God on their behalf. In the latter, the priest is given a salary and his private space, and can even enter into matrimony if he so chooses (the conditions for matrimony varies in each denomination). In the Catholic fold, the church completely commandeers the services of the priests and nuns.

To be sure, there are criminal cases against priests from the Eastern Orthodox churches too, but typically many more are reported in the Catholic churches where a vow of celibacy is mandatory for priesthood. A large number of priests do abide by the Christian way of life, honouring their calling in right earnest. But the priests who defile themselves by their conduct end up spreading their taint over the whole clergy by association, sullying the Church in the public eye.

The Pope and the Canon

The phenomenon is evidently pervasive enough for the Pope to have touched upon the issue at some length in his December 28 letter—which was released to the public only on January 2, 2017—his words an unambiguous call for introspection, atonement and cleaning of the stables. In a way, the much-loved Pope Francis, known as one of the most frank, progressive and egalitarian-minded of the personages to have graced that august office, is going against an entrenched tendency in the Church to lean towards denial, obfuscation and institutional loyalty rather than the principles of natural justice. Indeed, the very fact that he needed to say this is an implicit verdict on the state of affairs.

A certain duality marks the Church’s response to what is surely a crisis. Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of the Catholic Bishop Conference of India, for instance, talks of a slew of reform measures in a contrite, ‘zero tolerance’ vein (see ‘We are trying to fix our policy on sexual harassment’). The CBCI sits at the crest of a multi-tiered hierarchy and has oversight over all of the Catholic Church in India. But in practice, it is often seen to give a wide berth to, if not defer to the wishes of the local diocese. Fr Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul’s curious journey (see box on page 50) is a case in point. The CBCI, thus, is in some crucial ways in breach of its responsibilities. “The whole blame rests on the CBCI,” says a theologian. “They are responsible as the corporate body of bishops for every action of the Church where discipline has to be maintained and action has to be taken.”

To a degree, the Church’s instinct towards secrecy is understandable—if not entirely acceptable. Especially so in a country like India, where a fraught politics of religion defines the general atmosphere. But even while being averse to public airing of such cases, if the Church’s internal handling had been oriented unambiguously towards ensuring justice, the situation may not have been so dire for victims and their kin. What is unforgivable is that the Church continues to protect these priests in spite of their criminal activities, pardoning them for their grievous sins.

The Church has a mechanism to handle cases against the clergy. If it had been infallibly oriented towards justice, then the victims wouldn’t have faced such dire situations.

This is despite a clearly stipulated internal mechanism. Where the victim is a minor, Fr Paul Thelakkat, former spokesperson of the Syro Malabar Church, lays out the internal procedure: “Every allegation has to be investigated by the local diocesan bishop. If there is any semblance of truth, the case is referred to the Vatican. The priest concerned has to be removed from office until investigations are over. Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed. The priest is placed in a situation away from children in a discretion which the bishop has to exercise during and after any canonical proceeding.”

In the Catholic Church, the Code of Canon Law calls for the constitution of a tribunal and an investigation if a complaint is raised. In certain severe cases, the matter is referred to the papal authorities in Rome and then punishment is meted out. “We always maintain the law of the land should be respected and nothing should be done to defile the legal system,” says an expert on the Canon Law who did not wish to be named. “Every diocese has a judicial vicar who is an expert in the Canon Law who investigates the case and there is a college of judges to decide the case. If it is a criminal case, it is reported to the police and they take charge of the case.”

But believers say they are not getting any justice under the Canon Law and this body of laws seems to apply mainly to the laity, not the clergy. Instead of taking action against culprits, they are shielded by the Church. The most recent example is that of Fathima Sofiya, who was just 17 when she was murdered in 2013 (box on page 42). Here, the minutes of the ecclesiastical court proceedings, which the Bishop of the Coimbatore Diocese presided over, contain Fr Arockiaraj’s confession that he had sexual contact with the victim. Fr Arockiaraj, 36, was dismissed from the church but the matter was not reported to the police.

The faithful fear that if they speak up against the Church, they will be isolated by the Church and the community. Those who are bold enough to fight the Church are dismissed as mentally unstable or as people who have a malicious intent to damage the Church. The Church also manages to instil fear in the community that the family will come to ruin if a case is brought against the Church.

Disempowered Laity

Binny Devassia, 55, has been seeking justice since 2005 after her daughter Jeesamol was found hanging in the San Jos Parish Hospital hostel at Pavara­tty, Thrissur (box on page 44). She believes her daughter did not commit suicide and there is foul play. Says Devassia, “I was told not to file a case against the priests, for my family will be completely destroyed. I was a very spiritual person, a devout Christian...but now I don’t have a God or a Church. I have not done anything wrong; so why should I be afraid? I believe my daughter was murdered and I will not rest till I get justice.”

Fathima’s mother, Shanti Roselin, 42, from Coimbatore, is facing the ire of the Church for doing just that. She has taken on the Roman Catholic Church for the death of her daughter, allegedly at the hands of the priest. She was given a letter excommunicating her from the church on August 30, 2015. Her lawyers say she can no longer receive the holy communion.

There was a move to canonise a priest who was sentenced to death in a 1966 murder case. It amounts to ridiculing other saints, says an ex-spokesman for the Church.

Dismally similar was the case of Shreya Benny, 12. Shreya, a Class VII student, had gone with 70 of her Sunday schoolmates of the Kaithavana church to attend a two-day personality development camp at Accept Kripa Bhavan in Alappuzha. Early morning on October 17, she was missing from her room and was found dead in a pond 100 metres away at around 7 am. The police reported it as an accidental death while the girl was sleepwalking. The post-mortem report, which indicated death by drowning, also spoke of two bite marks on the girl’s lower lips inflicted by her upper front teeth.

Says an Alappuzha resident: “There are huts all over the campus…this child was in one of them. None of the huts had any latches or locks on the doors. The way to the pond from the hut was one with many turns, not a straight one. So the sleepwalking theory is all bogus. Even the parents said she did not have somnambulism.”

Inconsistencies in the statements by priests and nuns made the parents suspicious. The child’s father Benny Ezharapara­yil, an auto driver, and mot­her Suja appealed to the then CM, V.S. Achuthanandan, when police failed to make progress, and the Crime Branch took over the case. (The parents had sought a CBI probe, but the age­ncy refused, citing lack of staff.) The Crime Branch report indicated the complicity of Fr Mathukutty, assistant director of the centre, and Sr Sneha, but they were chargesheeted only for negligence under 304 IPC.

Instead of justice, people in the locality say, what the parents faced was isolation by the church. “There were terrible rumours about the parents,” says a person in Alappuzha who did not want to be named. “Ordinary people cannot withstand the onslaught of the church. They have now retreated and are not interested in pursuing the case.” Activist K.V. Nair filed a counter-statement to the Crime Branch report on May 18, 2016 but the parents are no longer interested in pursuing the case. And sure enough, Benny was not interested in speaking to Outlook.

Anto Kokkat of the Joint Christian Council, points out that in both the Shreya and Jeesamol’s cases, “the parents believed their children would be safe in the church precincts, but they were betrayed.” Former priest George Pulikuthiyil agrees the Canon Law is interpreted differently for the clergy and laity. If a priest errs, he is merely sent to a retreat, made to do penance and taken back into the church. But if members of the congregation defy the clergy, they are excommunicated; even their rights to a church burial are terminated.

Human rights activist Jomon Puthenpurackal, 49, who has been seeking justice for Sr Abhaya for the past 25 years, thinks by now he has perhaps suffered more than the murdered nun. Sr Abhaya, 21, a second year pre-degree student, was found dead in a well in the St Pius X Convent in Kottayam on March 27, 1992. Puthenpurackal recalls that Kottayam was thick with rumours that priests were frequenting the St Pius X convent where Sr Abhaya too lived and she was murdered after she stumbled upon a scene in the kitchen of the hostel.

“I was 24 years old then and stayed in the YMCA hostel at Neendoor, doing social work,” recalls Puth­enpurackal. “I belong to the same Knanaya Catholic community, but I’d never even seen Sr Abhaya. Nor am I related to her. Three days after her funeral, a Sr Abhaya case action council was formed—prominent people like the MP and MLA of Kottayam were on board. P.C. Cherian Madakani was its president; I was made the convenor. At that time, no one dared to take on the church, but I have continued to fight even after several members of the council have passed away. I am not afraid to say the truth.”

Puthenpurackal shows deep marks on his back and head. In 1994, he says, his brother tried to kill him with an axe under the influence of alcohol. “My brother had married outside the community, so he was naturally evicted from the Knanaya church. He died in 2014, and the church gave Rs 10 lakh to his widow. I find that suspicious, for she is not part of our community. If they are innocent, why should they give my sister-in-law money?”

The strangest of things to befall him, says Puthenpurackal, was in August 2008. A special team comprising two IGs and three DySPs was formed to investigate him, the petitioner, on high court orders—later stayed by the Supreme Court. “There is only one officer probing Sr Abhaya’s murder at a time, while a whole team was formed to investigate me! They even tried to turn Abhaya’s parents against me. Who is behind all this I would like to know.”

Fr Thelakkat is indignant, though, at the suggestion of foul play by the church. “It’s a tragedy created mainly by the CBI and certain very malicious individuals to settle scores with the church. It’s also a case of the media creating an Orwellian truth fact­ory. The general public and media seem to be so sure of how the nun died and who killed the nun—hence the cry for the blood of two priests!” he says.

Those Sheltering Folds

Till date, three priests have been charged with murder and two sentenced to death by lower courts in Kerala—one was set fee and the other’s sentence was reduced by the high court. The first was back in 1966 when the Quilon District and Sessions Court sentenced 37-year-old Fr Benedict Onamkulam of Changanacherry diocese to death in the sensational murder case of 43-year-old Mariakutty. Half a century of time-depth ensures that the case offers a unique perspective into the Church’s tendency to exonerate, rally behind and rehabilitate those of its own—a classic case-study also of how other institutions are also averse to disturbing the equilibrium.

This is how the sequence of events went. A.S.R. Chari, a famous Supreme Court lawyer, was brought down to argue for the defendant. On April 7, 1967, the High Court acquitted Fr Onamkulam. The police had lined up numerous witnesses who had seen the priest near the scene of crime, but the court was inclined to find “a degree of artificiality” in their depositions. A bag of soiled clothes with patches of blood found in the priest’s room too was “not a very incriminating circumstance”, the judgement said.

Within the Church, priests and nuns can’t raise their voice. Their views will be dismissed as madness; they will be treated for mental illness, says a reformist leader.

The murder case had created a sensation in Kerala and, to cash in on it quickly, two Malayalam films, Madatharuvi and Mynatharuvi Kola Case, hit the screens in 1967. Interestingly, the then E.M.S. Namboodiripad government did not go for an appeal. Fr Onamkulam was initially not allowed to say the mass and lived a life of an outcast, but he was gradually rehabilitated into the church as a parish priest and died in 2001, recalls 83-year-old P.K. Mathew Ettumanur, schoolmate of Fr Onamkulam and member of the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement (KCRM).

A concerted effort to whitewash the case, says Mathew, began in 2000. There were even moves to canonise Onamkulam. Stories started surfacing in church-run journals that he was innocent and the death sentence was the outcome of him refusing to divulge confessional secrets. The murder was furnished with a suitable back story: that Mariakutty was actually pregnant with the child of a rich estate owner called Manimelathu Paulochen, but the abortion went awry under the hands of a lady doctor in Kanjirapally; so she was killed and dumped in Mannamaruthy. The doctor’s family, the newly fabricated story goes, confessed to Onamkulam many years later.

Onamkulam was bestowed with the epithet Sahanadasan (The Servant of Suffering) and, after his death, the church felt he had all the qualities of a saint and the process of canonisation was initiated. “Fr Onamkulam is in the space where people seek favours from him,” a priest associated with the process told Outlook.

Mathew thinks the church is stretching it a bit too far and trying to fool the faithful. “I knew Fr Onamkulam from our school days. We both belong to the same parish, St Mary’s Forane Church, Athirampuzha. When I heard about the murder in 1966, I was working in the sub-registrar’s office in Kaduthuruthy, so I went to investigate the matter independently to save him. I travelled and met many people and was soon convinced that things were not favourable for Fr Onamkulam. However, the court acquitted him and he led a quiet life. But when they started selling artefacts based on him after his death and encouraged people to pray to him, I objected and wrote stinging articles against this in Satyajwala. In fact, a team of us went and tracked Manimalethu Paulochen’s family in 2010.”

Paulochen’s son M.P. Jacob, 74, corroborates Mathew’s story. “My house is less than a kilometre from the murder scene. My father never worked as a manager in a coir factory in Alappuzha, nor had he ever seen Mariakutty.  He was not rich. We are not even Catholic, so the story that Onamkulam was the go-between for my father and Mariakutty does not hold. I wrote letters to Fr M.J. Kalapurackal (now deceased) who had written a book on Onamkulam titled Agnishuddhi, where a chapter is devoted to my father’s misdeeds. Fr Kalapurackal apologised and gave a corrigendum in all the leading newspapers.” Interestingly, there are claims on YouTube that Onamkulam was tested for paternity for Mariakutty’s son Joymon and the results were negative. Joymon’s wife, Mini, who lives in Alappuzha, told Outlook over phone no such DNA test was ever done on Joymon.

Fr Thelakkat weighs in on the side of those who think the canonisation move is a touch dubious. “The case is very old and mired in mystery and myth. I personally do not know whether he killed the lady, I cannot judge. However, I won’t consider him a saint just because he happened to suffer under the police,” says the former Syro Malabar spokesperson. “Those who paint him as a saint should be responsible to the holy tradition of the church lest people ridicule church’s saints—and also to the public, which knows a lot of details of the case.”

Be Merciful Unto Them

The cases of two other priests who had the ignominy of being charged with murder and tried in Kerala again illustrate some basic traits. One, a pattern of exploitative relationships that clergymen enter into and seek to control—till it ends in violence. And two, their capacity to get for themselves the best possible deal under the law. Take the bare-bones story of Fr George Cherian of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox (non-Catholic). On April 23, 1984, 18-year-old Jolly Mathew was found dead in the guest room of Bethany Ashram of Kuzhimattom Kara, Kottayam. The sessions court sentenced Fr Cherian to life imprisonment; this was reduced by the Kerala High Court.

Fr Anthony Lazar of the Latin Catholic Church, Kollam diocese, offers a more fleshed-out narrative. He was accused of hiring killers to finish off Mary­kutty on October 13, 1986. An eight-member gang led by Sasi had barged into her home in Kundara, Kollam—in the end, she lay dead with 19 stab wounds on her body. The gang was arrested and there the matter would have ended—had Marykutty not visited social activist Dr Xavier Paul’s home a month before the incident. She feared for her life, she told him, Fr Lazar was threatening to kill her.

Boris Paul, the activist’s son, relates the sequence of events thus: Marykutty was enticed into a rela­tionship by the priest when she was a nursing student in Bishop Benziger Hospital. After her studies, Fr Lazar found employment for her near his residence and they continued their affair. Since he did not want to marry her, she wanted to settle down and start a family with a suitable partner. Fr Anthony blocked all her marriage proposals, but Mary­kutty went ahead and got married to another man.

Fr Lazar continued to call her and compelled her to accompany him on outstation trips. And if she did not comply, he would threaten to kill her. Says Boris Paul: “She had with her bills for the hotel where they stayed, even jewellery bills. When my father heard this, he made her give a complaint to the DGP that her life was under threat.” So the police did not have to look far for the culprit; and the gang admitted Fr Lazar had hired them. He was found guilty by the Quilon sessions court and sentenced to death on July 22, 1988. Again, the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment by the high court.  

Advocate A. Jayashankar says in both Onamkulam’s and Lazar’s cases, the church hired expensive lawyers for them. It is speculated that Figarez too paid Rs 50 lakh-1 crore to his lawyers in the rape case. Bishop Karikkassery of Kottapuram—while saying “he has strayed, but he is still my son”—told Outlook the church is not paying his lawyer’s fees. When asked if there were complaints against Figarez from the previous parish, the Bishop said, “not of any grave nature.” A member of the Lourde Matha church points out that if they had removed him earlier, this would not have been happened.

As for Puthenpurackal, he has been pleading Sr Abhaya’s case without a lawyer. “I cannot afford to hire a lawyer. I have only passed my class six, but God has guided me for the past 25 years.” Even after being accused of murder, Fr Kottoor and Fr Poothrukayil are being defended by the Church and hold positions of power. Kottoor is chancellor of the Kottayam diocese of Knanaya Catholic Church and Poothrukayil retired as the principal of Pius X College in Kasargod. Advocate Boris Paul from Kollam says no accused priest has been thrown out of the church in Kerala. “Though Marykutty was the victim, the Church used the people’s money to hire the best lawyers to defend the accused Fr Lazar. It is morally corrupt.”

Reji Njallani, state convenor of KCRM, cites other curious facts. He has gathered information that in the past two decades, over 20 nuns have died of unnatural causes, but the church is not bothered to file complaints or take up the matter. As in Sr Abhaya’s case, the church is not interested in finding the accused. Njallani, a cardamom farmer based in Kattapana, Idukki, joined the church-run Indian Farmers’ Movement (INFAM) and was aghast at what he saw from close quarters. “The church collects money from us, but there is no transparency or accountability. That is when I joined KCRM to engineer a reform within the church without leaving the church. We try and make people aware of issues.”

Njallani points out that, within the church, priests and nuns cannot raise their voice either. “Their views will be dismissed as madness and they will be treated for mental illness.” In 2016, Sr Mary Sebastian, 45, of Nasrath Bhavan, Cherpunkal, Kottayam, under the Congregation of Mother of Carmel, wanted to leave the church with compensation for 25 years of service to the church. The KCRM intervened and asked for Rs 30 lakh; the church is not willing to pay more than Rs 1 lakh. The KCRM also wrangled Rs 12 lakh compensation for Sr Anita of St Agatha Congregation when she was thrown out of her convent in Aluva for making allegations against a priest.

The number of priests and nuns leaving the church has been increasing steadily, and the Ex-Priests and Nuns Association has over 600 members in its fold. In 2009, Sr Jesme’s tell-all book Amen: An Autobiography of a Nun had shocked Kerala society. It was followed by Sr Mary Chandy’s Nanma Niranjavale Swasthi (Peace to the One filled with Grace) and Fr Shibu Kalamparambil’s memoir Oru Vaidikante Hrudayamitha (The Heart of a Priest). Outlook’s cover story on these books (July 23, 2012) was met with stiff resistance from the Catholic Church. Sr Jesme then said she was denounced as mentally unstable and Mary Chandy’s claims as a former nun were dismissed as untrue. Fr Kalamparambil, 45, who left the church in 2010 after 24 years, is now married and has a child. “Celibacy is against the natural law. It has nothing to do with being a believer of Jesus. The main reason that there are so many cases now is that these poor priests and nuns have to remain celibate. They are given food and accommodation and they are just slaves of the Church where they don’t have any rights,” says Kalamparambil.

Secret Marriages?

There’s another intriguing aspect to the interface between the Catholic way and civil law. The Code of Canon Law, Book IV, Title VII, Chapter VII, allows for marriages to be conducted secretly for grave and urgent cause. The Law says explicitly that the witnesses, the spouses and the local priest must observe secrecy about the marriage conducted. Such a marriage is to be noted only in a special register kept in the secret archive of the curia. This allowance of secret marriages has been viewed suspiciously by the laymen. They point out that no layperson can get married secretly.

Says M.L. George of the Catholic Laymen’s Association, “Well, 99.9 per cent of the laymen have open marriages, which have to be registered both with the church and the government. Before a marriage is sanctioned, it goes through a long process: there has to be an engagement, the bride and the groom have to attend classes and the proposed marriage has to be announced in church on three Sundays. The marriage is done in an open church with two witnesses. So why is there a provision for secret marriages in the Code of Canon Law? If these marriages are taking place, then it is violating the civil laws of the country. If there are children from these marriages, no one knows who they are.” George, in fact, says the entire Code of Canon Law is unconstitutional because it runs parallel to the Indian judicial system.

The Joint Christian Council has been working to eradicate exploitation by the church, promote democratisation and get the Church Act implemented. The organisation had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to enact the Church Act (The Christian Church Properties and Institutions Trust bill 2009, which is under consideration of Kerala Government) drafted by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, as a country-wide law for all sects of Christians of India. “It can stop the present lawlessness,” says Kokkat. “It will give justice to all believers, protect their civil rights. The wealth of the Church belongs to the people and the administration should be in the hands of the trust.”

Church officials, asked for a response, are naturally defensive and tend to play down the incidents. Fr Jimmy Poochakkatt, spokesperson of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church, says cases against priests are only a few and most of them have been acquitted. “All priests and nuns cannot be tarnished. In all these years, only a handful of cases has been filed.” Fr Thelakkat too says one need not “accuse the church” in every case of “unnatural death and accident” that can occur in convents or among clerics. “Celibacy and virginity are indeed practised on a large scale,” he says, and in such a situation “unfounded suspicions and even defaults” can occur. “Every accusation need not carry truth.”

He puts up a stout defence of the way of the clergy. “There may occur sin and failure in vows; that is not the end of life. In a sexually saturated and sensate world, exceptions only prove the law; celibacy and virginity are difficult, but not impossible as some seem to think,” Thelakkat says. “Sins do occur, but springs of sanctity also bloom, giving glory to the church and models to men and women in the world. Every sin is not a crime. In any case, crime is a matter for the State to deal with. The church has no power there, but it can give legally permitted assistance to anyone it thinks it should defend.”

And yet, perhaps one could wish for more than just organisational loyalty. The Church, the world over, is facing an existential crisis. Many lie desolate, some have even seen a conversion to recreational spaces like bars or restaurants. Truth and spirit, the only two principles expected of true worshippers,  seem to have been abandoned. The abomination that makes the place desolate is a sign foretold by Jesus Christ.

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