Abused Indian women must say 'Me too'

Catholic women who have been preyed on by clergy must find the courage to speak out
Abused Indian women must say 'Me too'

An Indian demonstrator takes part in a vigil and silent protest against the alleged gang-rape of a nun in the eastern state of West Bengal in New Delhi in this file image taken on March 16, 2015. (Photo by Sajjad Hussain/AFP)

In earlier times, almost everywhere in the world, a woman who was raped, molested or even defamed through sexual innuendo was expected to shut up and suffer in silence.

In all these instances, it was assumed — and by women themselves too — that it was always the woman's fault for "leading the man on." A woman's silence could at least salvage part of her family's honor. It was a man's world through and through, and women were there only to serve in silence.

The #MeToo campaign has shattered this view completely. It revealed for the first time how even upper-class white women — mainly actors but other professionals too — suffer from regular sexual harassment, seduction and rape. Their decision to come out in public meant that they wanted an end to this state immediately.

Rather, it is the guilty men who should be outed, shamed and punished.

But if this is so among women who are financially secure, what must it be for women who are poor and defenseless because of age, economic status, race and social insecurity? For women who have no voice? What must it be for women in the Catholic Church, that most conservative gender institution of all?

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India has a dubious record of being the most unsafe country in the world for women. The attitude of Indian men toward women is largely feudal and medieval, which means women in India suffer in silence and frustration. 

Are women in the Indian Church in any way better off than their Hindu, Muslim, Dalit or tribal sisters? Are they even different?

It is a common fallacy to lump all minorities as being of "the same kind." We do this regularly to Muslims, Christians, Dalits and tribal people. We fail to recognize the variety that exists, even in small communities.

Catholic women are very different from each other. They vary according to age, status, economic level, community, geographical location — there's no one size fits all. The young female professional in Mumbai or Bangalore doesn't have much in common with the older tribal woman in Jharkhand or Meghalaya, any more than the nun from Kerala working in a hospital in Rajasthan has with her married sister in rural Tamil Nadu.

But no matter how different they may be, Catholic women share a common vulnerability: their tremendous respect and affection for their priests. This makes them willing victims of the deceit and cunning of so many clergy.

One may argue that this respect for priests is based on imagination more than reality. It's not that some priests don't go astray. They do, but most Catholics always emphasize their good points. In fact, when confronted with proof of a priest's deviance, most women will fiercely condemn the one doing the talking.

Always mindful that Catholics are a beleaguered minority in a suspicious non-Catholic nation, they are more than careful not to wash dirty linen in public. This is an attitude that must change.

An American priest, commenting on the recent downfall of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, made a few pertinent remarks:

"There were always rumours about his dealings with young men, young seminarians. Most of us were vaguely aware of this. But we really did not deal with the question of abuse of power when a bishop puts sexual pressure on his subordinates.

"The #MeToo movement has made us all more sensitive to recognizing that sexual crimes are usually crimes of power, not of lust.

"Secondly, we were afraid. We were convinced that speaking up against such a powerful and popular archbishop would be useless. He had powerful connections. He knew everybody. He was a prodigious fundraiser, especially for the Vatican. He could ruin you if you spoke out.

"Third, everybody liked McCarrick. He was a likeable guy. The secular press lionized him. He was a frequent guest on Sunday morning talk shows, like "Meet the Press." He was enormously popular.

"We just didn't want to believe the rumors, because we liked Teddy McCarrick."

But today, after the cases of complicity and collusion involving Catholic bishops across the world — in the United States, Australia, Europe and Latin America — we know that the Catholic hierarchy is as corroded with its lust for power and money as any other political system. It is not different. It is certainly not better.

And Catholic women in India who have been preyed on by their clergy — be they teenage girls, nuns in convents, married women in parishes or ordinary women everywhere — must find it in them to say courageously: "Me too! I too was once a victim, but now I have the courage and confidence to point a finger and say, 'Shame on you! You hurt us once. You will not do so again.'"

The day this takes place will be a quantum leap forward in confidence and solidarity for Catholic women in India.

And so may the huge edifice of clericalism, built on so much hypocrisy, arrogance and misogyny over the centuries, so much part of the Roman Catholic system, and the cause of so much suffering to women, collapse and come crashing down to earth.  

As Voltaire once said of the Catholic Church in his time, "Ecrasez l'infame!" ("Pull the damn thing down!")

Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai.

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