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India

Indian Church leaders 'ignoring papal norms on sex charges'

Leaders are accused of ignoring Pope Francis’ apostolic letter to shield a bishop facing sex charges

Indian Church leaders 'ignoring papal norms on sex charges'

Lay leader Chhotebhai addresses a gathering of Catholics in Mumbai in 2016. He has accused church leaders of ignoring papal norms by not acting against a bishop accused of sexual misconduct. (Photo: Almayasabdam)

Catholic lay leaders in India have accused church officials of ignoring papal instructions to deal with sex abuse by trying to shield a bishop facing allegations of murder, womanizing and corruption.

Lay leaders Chhotebhai and Melwyn Fernandes urged the papal nuncio to India, Archbishop Giambattista Diquattro, to take action against Bishop Kannikadass Antony William of Mysore in Karnataka state.

Chhotebhai is the convener of the Indian Catholic Forum and adviser to Catholic Church Reform International, while Fernandes is general secretary of the Association of Concerned Catholics, a forum of laypeople in India.

Some 37 priests sought Bishop Wiilliam's removal from office a year ago. The priests accused him of financial corruption, fathering children and having sexual relations with several women.

The priests also lodged their complaints with church leaders including Cardinal Oswald Gracias, one of the seven special advisers to Pope Francis and president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.

The allegations hit national headlines early this month after Michael F. Saldanha, a Catholic former high court judge, alleged that Bishop William was also responsible for the deaths of four priests, two of whom were murdered.

Saldanha claimed to have independently investigated the charges against Bishop William.

Bishop William, 55, denied the accusations and told UCA News he was targeted because of reform measures he introduced in the diocese after taking charge in 2017. They included the transfer of several priests who handled plumb posts, he said.

However, Chhotebhai, in his June 24 open letter to Archbishop Diquattro, said the church hierarchy had ignored Pope Francis’ apostolic letter Vos Estis Lux Mundi when they failed to act against the accused bishop.

Papal instructions ignored

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The apostolic letter that came into effect on May 6, 2019, deals with clerical sex abuse. It covers “forcing someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts.” 

The norms explained in the papal letter covers conduct consisting of “actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations,” Chhotebhai noted.

Any person may submit a report of sexual abuse through the nuncio, the pontifical representative, according to the letter. 

The report shall include as many particulars as possible, such as indications of time and place, Chhotebhai said, quoting the papal document. 

Chhotebhai appealed to the nuncio to “take immediate action in the matter and remove” Bishop William from office.

Chhotebhai wanted to institute a canonical inquiry, including competent laypersons, women’s activists, experts in criminal law and finance, as provided for in the papal letter “before more irreparable damage is caused to the Catholic Church in India.”

Fernandez in his June 24 letter to the nuncio also sought action against Bishop William. He wanted the nuncio to act within a fortnight and threatened to move the federal government if the Vatican official failed to act within the deadline.

“This cannot go on endlessly. There should be an end,” Fernandes told UCA News on June 26, noting that Archbishop Diquattro, Cardinal Gracias and other church officials had ignored several of their earlier complaints.

Father Nigel Barrett, the spokesperson of Cardinal Gracias, told UCA News that the cardinal has “no jurisdiction to initiate any action against a bishop.”

“Since most charges against Bishop William are criminal in nature, it is for the police and the state to deal with them,” he said.

Besides, “their complaints are already with the nunciature, which is the competent authority to deal with such issues. The cardinal cannot be blamed for inaction,” he said.

Chhotebhai said church authorities in India are aware of the complaints “but we don’t have any information on what they are doing."

“Justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done,” he told UCA News on June 28.

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