India had 240,000 cases pending in courts linked to rape and other sexual violations against children as of Dec. 31, 2019. (Image: AFP)
Church leaders have welcomed India's Supreme Court staying a state court's order that said pressing the breast of a child without removing her clothes cannot constitute sexual assault.
The Supreme Court of India on Jan. 27 put off the Bombay High Court order that acquitted a man accused of assaulting a 12-year-old girl in Maharashtra state.
The state court on Jan. 19 ruled that touching the girl's breast without removing her top did not fall within the definition of sexual assault under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO).
The man's action could only be defined as "outraging the modesty" of a woman under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code and could not be seen as sexual assault under POSCO, it said. Sexual assault can happen only if the accused had skin-to-skin contact with the victim, the court maintained.
Holy Spirit Sister Lizy Thomas, an activist nun in Madhya Pradesh state capital Bhopal, decried the court's order and said it could have been misinterpreted to attack women and children.
"When sexual assaults against children and women are on the rise, courts will have to be vigilant in their orders. A minor fault in them can boomerang," she told UCA News.
The nun and her team have conducted an extensive campaign to create awareness about POSCO, a stringent law that aims to protect children from sexual exploitation and violence.
She thanked the Supreme Court for "sending out a right message" by staying the high court order that has become controversial in social media discussions.
The Supreme Court judges, headed by Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde, agreed with Attorney General K.K. Venugopal that Bombay High Court's order was "a very disturbing conclusion."
Venugopal, the top law officer of the federal government, made an urgent mention of the case on Jan. 27, calling on the top court to take suo moto cognizance of the state court's verdict.
The state court's verdict "will set a dangerous precedent," he said, seeking an immediate stay on it.
Divine Word Father Babu Joseph, the former spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, also welcomed the top court's order.
"The high court order has betrayed the respect for women," he told UCA News on Jan. 28. Court orders should be aimed at strengthening and promoting dignity and respect for women, he said.
"Legal interpretation undermining the rights and dignity of women should only aid more violations against them," the priest said.
The Supreme Court's order is in the right perspective, particularly when violations against women and children are increasing, he said.
Federal government records show that 240,000 cases were pending in courts linked to rape and other sexual violations against children as of Dec. 31, 2019.
The government has also given the go-ahead to set up 1,023 fast-track special courts to expedite the trial and disposal of pending cases against children.