A file image of Bishop Thomas Thennatt of Gwalior who died Dec.14, 2018. (Photo supplied)
A court in central India has asked police to probe the death of a bishop based on the petition of a Catholic woman who suspects "foul play" involving clergy.
Judge Nidhi Neelesh Shrivastava in Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh on May 11 directed police to investigate the circumstances that led to the death of Bishop Thomas Thennatt of Gwalior on Dec. 14 last year.
The 65-year-old bishop died after his car reportedly skidded off a road and overturned while his driver was negotiating a turn.
The bishop died in a hospital of head injuries. The three others — a priest, a deacon and the driver — escaped without injuries.
Dolly Theresa, a Catholic of Gwalior Diocese, complained to the court that police refused to investigate what she called "suspicious" circumstances under which only the bishop died and all the others in the car escaped unhurt.
The court asked police to submit an investigation report within a month on whether or not it was an accident and whether others in the car were complicit in the bishop's death.
But Father Joseph Munthalakuzhi, who said he was traveling with the bishop when the accident happened, told ucanews.com: "It is an unnecessary controversy."
He said after the "unfortunate road accident" the bishop was rushed to a hospital, but his life was not able to be saved.
He agreed that himself, the deacon and the driver did not suffer any injuries, but he wondered on what basis suspicions were being expressed that they were murderers.
Theresa told ucanews.com that as a Catholic she had a right to know the truth about what happened because the car allegedly involved showed no sign of damage and the accident was not reported to police.
Further, she complained that the bishop's body was buried without the conducting of a legally mandatory post-mortem examination.
She approached the police after diocesan authorities failed to provide what she regarded as a satisfactory response to her queries.
Then she she approached the court after police refused to register a case based on her complaint.
Father N. John Xavier, the diocesan administrator, has ruled out foul play and said the allegations are "absolutely baseless and unfounded."
He agreed the body was buried without a post-mortem but did not explain why. "We have nothing to hide," he said. “We will fully cooperate with the investigation.”
Complaint a 'grave sin'
Father Xavier agreed Theresa's parish priest has banned her from the Eucharist and Holy Communion as a disciplinary measure against her "filing a frivolous complaint that brought a bad name to the tiny Catholic community in the state."
The administrator agreed to "look into the ban compassionately if she approaches me."
Father Xavier said canon law 195 allows that those obstinately continuing in "manifest grave sin" are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.
Theresa said if the church officials fail to admit her for Communion, she will take action in a civil court or file a complaint with police to restore her rights to practice her faith.
Bishop Thennatt was the first member of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate, popularly known as Pallotines, to become a bishop in India.
Pope Francis appointed him as the Gwalior bishop on Oct. 18, 2016.
He was ordained as a priest in 1978 and began his work in Guntur Diocese, Andhra Pradesh, before moving to Madhya Pradesh in 1991.
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