ucanews.com reporter, KochiUpdated: February 18, 2019 10:23 AM GMT
In this file photo taken on Feb. 28, 2017, Indian police escort priest Robin Vadakkumcherry (center) after his arrest in Peravoor, some 300km north of Kochin in the southern state of Kerala. A court convicted the priest of raping a minor in the latest sexual assault scandal involving the Catholic Church in Kerala. (Photo by AFP)
A Catholic diocese in southern India has welcomed a court handing out a 20-year jail term to a priest convicted of the statutory rape of a teenage girl who gave birth to his child.
A court in Thalassery town of Kerala sentenced 50-year-old Father Robin Vadakkumcherry of Mananthavady Diocese to 60 years in jail on Feb. 16.
The court convicted him on three sexual offense counts and gave him 20 years in jail for each crime. However, the court said the jail terms can be served concurrently for 20 years.
He was charged with rape of a minor under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code and with violating sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.
The court also fined the priest 300,000 rupees (US$4,300) and ruled that half would be used as compensation for the victim.
“The court has found the priest guilty and sentenced him. We welcome it,” said Father Jose Kocharackal, spokesman for Mananthavady Diocese.
The priest was arrested on Feb. 28, 2017, just weeks after the girl gave birth to his child amid allegations of church officials attempting to cover up what occurred.
At the time of the crime, Father Vadakkumcherry was the priest of St. Sebastian’s parish in Kottiyoor. He also managed a church-run school in the parish where the victim was a grade 11 student.
During the trial the Catholic parents of the girl claimed she was above the legal age of 18.
The victim told the court that she and the priest had mutually consented to have sex as two adults.
During police investigations the girl’s biological father also claimed to have raped and impregnated his own daughter in an attempt to exonerate the priest.
However, police conducted a DNA test on the baby and the priest was found to be the child’s father. Police also produced birth records from the school and hospital to prove the girl was below 17, a minor according to Indian law.
Court exonerates seven others
Father Kocharackal also welcomed the court’s decision to exonerate seven others who were co-accused in the case including a priest and four nuns.
“Since the beginning we were confident that they were innocent, and the court has put its stamp of approval on our stand,” he said.
Diocesan priest Father John Therakom, who was chairman of the district’s Child Welfare Committee, two doctors at the hospital and four nuns were accused of not reporting a crime and assisting in the destruction of evidence. The court exonerated them for lack of evidence.
Father Kocharackal said that immediately after his arrest Father Vadakkumcherry was suspended from exercising his right as a priest. “Therefore, he cannot offer Mass or conduct any other priestly activity, even if he is not defrocked,” he said.
The diocese will initiate canonical procedures to take away his clerical status but church laws insist the priest has a hearing to complete the process, Father Kocharackal said.
“But in this case, he will be available [for a hearing] only after serving his 20-years in jail,” he said.
The priest said the diocese has not handled or paid for the cases of either the accused or the co-accused.
“We are not in a position to say if the priest will appeal to a higher court against the verdict,” Father Kocharackal said.
Meanwhile, local media reports said police plan to take their cases against those exonerated to higher courts.