ucanews.com reporter, BhopalUpdated: June 24, 2019 10:15 AM GMT
Indian Christians carry palm leaves as they celebrate Palm Sunday at St. Thomas Catholic Church in Bhopal in this April 2003 file photo. Madhya Pradesh has seen a host of unfounded abuse allegations against priests. (AFP photo)
A court in central India has acquitted a Catholic priest accused of raping a woman in his presbytery after it could not find any merit in the charges filed almost a year ago.
A trial court in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state, acquitted 52-year-old Bhopal archdiocesan Father George Jacob on June 21.
The priest was arrested last Aug. 11 and sent to jail after a middle-aged woman complained that he raped her after inviting her to his presbytery.
The priest was released on bail on Aug. 20 after a medical report found him incapable of performing the sexual act.
The court conducted 10 hearings and examined medical reports, statements of witnesses and other scientific evidence before acquitting the priest.
Under his bail conditions, the priest visited the court once a month and signed a document.
The archdiocese has welcomed the court’s decision. “From the beginning, we were sure that the priest would be cleared of the charges,” said spokesman Father Maria Stephan.
The woman’s claim that the priest had invited her to his presbytery with the promise of offering her a job in a school where he was principal made the archdiocese suspicious about her claim, Father Stephan said. Father Jacob was a parish priest and not the principal of any school, he said.
The woman had also faked her own identity as an unmarried Hindu woman, but documents proved that she was married and a Muslim. Besides, she was also unable to give the exact time of the alleged incident among other many questions.
“It proved that the priest was trapped, probably for extortion of money," Father Stephan said.
According to Father Jacob, the woman came to his presbytery asking for some drinking water. She entered the room and went to fetch the water. She then demanded money and he had to push her out, but there was no other physical contact, Father Stephen said.
Madhya Pradesh has witnessed several sex abuse allegations against Catholic priests in recent years.
Sanguinist Father Victor Mundargi was released on Feb. 28, 2018, two years after he was arrested on charges of raping a 10-year-old girl residing in a hostel under his care in Tappa village of Dewas district.
In September 2017, 40-year-old Father Sebastian Panthalluparambil, principal of the church-run Jyoti Senior Secondary School in Rewa district, was accused of molesting a girl student.
Father Panthalluparambil was exonerated after CCTV footage of the principal's office at the time of the alleged incident proved the complaint was baseless.
On July 10 last year, police arrested Father Leo D'Souza, 56, following a complaint of sexual abuse by the parents of an eighth-grade boy of the church-run Amar Jyoti School in the tribal-dominated district of Dindori.
Father D’Souza, manager of the school run by Jabalpur Diocese, was later released by a court.
Christian leaders say missioners and priests are routinely arrested on fabricated charges at the behest of hard-line Hindu groups opposed to Christianity.
The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party ruled the state for 15 years until December 2018 when the secular Congress party won the state election.