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Court asks absconding church workers in Kerala to surrender

A priest, two nuns and a lay woman are accused of covering up for a Catholic priest arrested for raping a minor girl

Court asks absconding church workers in Kerala to surrender

The church-run hospital in Kerala, where a 17-year-old girl delivered a baby boy in February. (Screengrab from christurajhospital.com)

T.K. Devasia, Kochi
India

March 15, 2017

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The southern Indian High Court of Kerala has ordered those accused of attempting to cover up for a Catholic priest arrested for allegedly raping a minor girl to surrender to the police.

A priest, two nuns and a lay woman, all working in Manathavady Diocese in Kerala are absconding. The four had applied for "anticipatory bail" but the court ruled that they should first surrender to police and then seek bail in a lower court.

Police on Feb. 28 arrested 48-year-old Manathavady Father Robin Vadakkancherry for the alleged rape of a 17-year-old girl from his parish. In India, girls under the age of 18 years are considered minors and consensual sex with a minor is viewed as rape.

Father Vadakkancherry, parish priest of St. Sebastian's Church in Kottiyoor, was arrested after an investigation proved his involvement, according to police.

The case came to light after the girl, a high school student, gave birth to a baby boy. 

The girl is a student of the church-run Immigration Jubilee Memorial Higher Secondary School where the priest was managing director until his arrest.

Police have since accused Father Joseph Therakam of trying to cover up the incident in his capacity as district chairperson of Wayanad Child Welfare Committee with the help of Sister Betty, a member of the committee.

Sister Ophelia of Holy Infant Mary Orphanage, where the baby was transferred soon after the delivery, and Thankamma, an office bearer of the Mothers' Forum of the parish, were also accused.

Nicholas Joseph, a lawyer for the prosecution, told ucanews.com that the Kerala High Court felt conspiracy charges may not stand as the major lapse on the part of the priest and nuns was their failure to ascertain the age of the victim.

Her age was shown as 18 when the baby was presented before them but records showed that the mother's actual age was 17. While the accused maintain the family of the victim concealed her actual age, police say the priests and nuns conspired to present the girl as overage in a bid to save their priest from rape charges.

"The maximum charge that can be leveled is injudiciousness. They accepted the age without verifying records. This is a case of imprudence on their part but does not constitute conspiracy," Joseph told ucanews.com.

The High Court directed the Lower Court to grant them bail in view of these facts.

The accused, reported to be absconding, applied for bail after police charged them with conspiracy to cover up the case of concerning Father Vadakkancherry.

The priest and nuns have been asked to surrender before the investigators within five days and move the Lower Court for bail, he added.

Bishop Jose Porunnedom of Mananthavady met members of St. Sebastian parish after Sunday Mass March 12 and promised to take "strong steps" to prevent such incidents in future.

The bishop accepted parishioners' suggestions to ban altar girls and women from entering the parsonage. They also wanted parishes to install CCTV cameras in churches and the formation of lay committees to monitor the situation. 

The bishop said that the diocese was viewing the incident as an opportunity to bring much-needed changes to all churches in the diocese.  

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