Father Walter William Rozario, seen at Good Shepherd Cathedral Church in Rajshahi district of Bangladesh on March 12, denies breaking his vow of celibacy. (ucanews.com photo)
The mysterious disappearance of a Bangladeshi priest just days before Pope Francis visited the country has taken a sinister new turn.
Police suspected Father Walter William Rozario had been kidnapped by radical Muslims when they found his abandoned motorbike and discovered that his mobile phone was switched off.
But their investigation revealed that the 41-year-old priest had allegedly been involved in a string of relationships with women and at least one girl under 18, the age of consent in Bangladesh.
"From our interrogation and findings, I can confirm that five women and an underage girl had illicit and physical relationships with the priest. One of those who admitted having an illicit affair with the priest was a girl aged 17 who was studying in college," Inspector Saikat Hasan of Boraigram police told ucanews.com.
Father Rozario, then assistant parish priest at Maria Virgo Potens Church and acting headmaster of church-run St. Louis High School in Borni in Natore district, was involved in preparatory work for the pope's visit when he went missing on Nov. 27 last year.
Police found the priest in Sylhet, about 410 kilometers from Natore, on Dec. 1 after he reportedly escaped from his abductors and called his brother for help.
But the next day Natore's police chief told a press briefing that Father Rozario had not been abducted but had sought to be on his own to escape psychological distress.
During four days of searching for the priest, Boraigram police questioned about 20 people including 11 women and several underage girls based on information they found from two laptops and several SIM cards retrieved from the priest's rooms.
Later, when they questioned Father Rozario, they found he had embezzled funds from the school to buy the silence of women with whom he had allegedly had improper relationships.
Police said phone records of 15-year-old Magdalene Pereira* showed evidence that the priest sent her "lascivious texts" including "I love you" several times.
"That girl didn't admit having a physical relationship with the priest, but she admitted the priest kissed her on the lips one day," Inspector Hasan said.
After finding Father Rozario in Sylhet, police escorted him to the capital Dhaka and then to Natore police station on Dec. 2.
During interrogation, the priest admitted that no one kidnapped him, but he claimed he went into hiding due to psychological trauma he was suffering from an alleged blackmail attempt, according to a statement recorded on Dec. 3 by the police and seen by ucanews.com.
Inspector Hasan said the priest admitted having physical relationships with four females, including one with Anita Roy, 28, that started within months of his ordination on Dec. 31, 2008.
Several Catholics in Rajshahi city told ucanews.com that they saw the priest in the residence of Roy, then 20, on several nights in 2009.
Roy admitted during police questioning that she had photographs of some intimate moments with the priest that she showed to police.
"Recently Roy said she believed the priest was cheating on her, so she also tried to cheat on him too. The priest was afraid and so gave Anita Roy 200,000 taka (US$2,350) last year," Inspector Hasan said.
"Half of the money came from the funds of the school where he was the headmaster, and the rest he took as a loan from the bishop's fund. It seems the priest wanted to keep her [Roy's] mouth shut about the relationship. It was the main reason behind the priest's disappearance."
Maria Rebeiro*, a 16-year-old former student at St. Louis High School, said she visited Father Rozario in October 2017 in his headmaster's office after he had promised to give her some pictures of her dancing in a school event.
She claimed the priest, while handing over the pictures, suddenly grabbed her right hand and held it tight.
"I was surprised and shocked and quickly shook away from his grip. I went home straight away," she told ucanews.com.
When Maria told her elder sister Jasmine* about the incident, Jasmine told her to stay away from the priest because she had heard many people talk about him having illicit sexual relations with women and girls under 18.
"I have been very cautious about him and kept my distance from the priest since then," she said, adding it was not the first time the priest had made "unusual advances" to her.
In August 2017, Father Rozario had asked Maria during a phone conversation if her family would accept a priest as their daughter's jamai (bridegroom).
"I found it strange and funny, so I didn't take it seriously, I thought he must be kidding," Maria said.
"He used to call me about my studies and to invite me to participate in school cultural programs. I always looked at him with reverence as a priest and a headmaster."
Another student, Magdalene Pereira*, 15, had an "unusual relationship" with the priest, according to several teachers and Catholics who spoke to ucanews.com on condition of anonymity.
"He was a priest, our headmaster and the director of YCS [Young Christian Students]. I was the president of the local YCS unit, so for various purposes and occasions I had to communicate with him. If people make gossip out of this, it is frustrating for me," Magdalene told ucanews.com.
Police would not publicly name the underage girl who allegedly admitted having sexual relations with the priest and, after initially agreeing to an interview with ucanews.com, she did not meet at the agreed time and became uncontactable.
David Gomes*, a senior teacher at St. Louis High School, said that while on holiday last year he went to the school for personal reasons and saw Magdalene Pereira in the priest's room. "I found it unusual and annoying," he said.
Gomes claimed the priest's immoral relationships with young women and girls were something of an open secret in the town but people had kept silent for many years, fearing a backlash from church authorities.
"I knew the priest was attracted to young girls, especially those good at dancing and singing. I tried to ignore such things as I am not interested in someone's personal life, but I noticed when people brought them to my attention," Gomes told ucanews.com.
Father Rozario is seen in his office at St. Louis High School. (Photo courtesy of St. Paul Cafe)
Father Rozario now denies what police say he admitted but appears reticent to challenge "the truth established by the situation."
"I don't want to challenge it or elaborate on it. It might create further problems for me. I have come out of a bad situation and don't want to look back on it. I only want to start over again with my priestly ministries," he said.
Father Rozario said he would soon refund the money he took from school funds.
Speaking to ucanews.com on May 26, he claimed he disappeared last year due to depression, but he denied having physical relationships with women and underage girls.
"When police quizzed me, I was in a psychological trauma. I was forced to say many things under pressure. I can admit having intimate relationships with them, but I didn't have physical relationships with anyone," Father Rozario said.
"I didn't violate the vow of celibacy in my priestly life."
The priest declined to answer whether he kissed or sent pornographic mobile messages to ninth-grader Magdalene Pereira.
He also denied having a physical relationship with Anita Roy but said he gave her money in 2017 after she blackmailed him by threatening to release naked pictures of him online.
"In the digital age, it is possible to create fake images. Had she released what she claimed to possess, my priestly life could have been in danger. I wanted to stop her by giving her money," the priest said.
After he was traced by police in December, Father Rozario stayed at the house of Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi, a diocese which includes Borni and has about 60,000 of Bangladesh's 350,000 Catholics, for several months.
A diocesan committee was formed by the bishop to probe the case but its findings have not been made public.
Father Rozario has not returned to Borni since December.
In February, he was appointed assistant parish priest of Good Shepherd Cathedral Church of Rajshahi.
At the end of April, he was sent even further afield to Ave Maria Catholic Church in Gulta in Sirajganj district to serve as acting parish priest for two months.
However, his previous position as acting headmaster of St. Louis High School has not been revoked.
Bishop Gervas Rozario, vice-president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh, told ucanews.com that he has a "responsibility to justice and doing the right thing for everyone concerned."
"I was waiting to see if police could find anything that will go against the law of the country. They apparently did not find anything to hook him down," he said.
"Then I asked the parish priest to do an investigation, but he too did not find anything grave enough to ask Father Rozario to step down. But he found several cases of imprudent behavior.
"I also talked to him several times but he denied breaking his vow of celibacy."
Bishop Rozario backtracked from his claim last December that police had "cooked up a story" about the priest disappearing to escape from psychological pressure.
"Anita Roy plotted against the priest with her Muslim boyfriend. It was foolish of the priest not to share the problem with others and to give her money secretly," the bishop said.
Asian 'thunderstorm' approaches
Inspector Hasan said police cannot charge Father Rozario unless a victim or family member makes an official complaint.
Cases of priests acting immorally are common in largely impoverished Bangladesh where many Catholics are poorly educated and in fear of the church, said former nun Rosaline Costa, a Catholic rights activist and former executive director of Hotline Human Rights Trust in Bangladesh.
"I know many [priests] who are engaged in such immorality but in most cases the bishops and vicars suppress the news to protect them. Children rarely speak up as they don't realize in most cases what has happened to them," said Costa, who moved to New York in 2017.
She said underage girls are often silenced by the perpetrators with rewards including money and foreign trips, noting that it is mainly girls from poor and needy families who tend to fall prey to clergymen.
"I know a foreign priest who used to support the education of poor girls and set up their marriages. That clergyman demanded the bodies of very needy girls," Costa said.
Bangladeshi law provides severe punishment for child abusers.
A person found guilty of abusing minors can face between 10 years to life imprisonment under the Women and Child Repression Prevention Act 2000, said advocate Nina Goswami, deputy director of Ain-O-Salish Kendra, a Dhaka-based rights group.
There is no legal provision for punishment for covering up an abuse case, but the courts can deliver any sentence depending on levels of complicity, she told ucanews.com.
However, in Bangladesh's conservative and largely religious-minded society, it is very rare for minors and their families to stand against abusers and fight legal battles against religious persons.
Costa believes the child sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in Europe, the Americas and Australia are likely to explode in Asia, not just in Bangladesh.
"I don't think the Bangladesh Catholic Christian community is too far from that of Europe, America and Australia. When things on this issue are disclosed, it will be like a bombshell or a thunderstorm," she added.
* The names of the alleged victims and a teacher have been changed at their request and for their protection.
This article was first published 13. 6. 2018.
To read the Bengali version click here.