India's church remains in denial over abuse by clergy

There is an urgent need for sensitizing the church hierarchy and Catholic educators in human resource management
India's church remains in denial over abuse by clergy

Indian police escort Father Robin Vadakancherry (center) Feb. 28 after he was arrested for allegedly raping a 16-year-old girl. He was arrested after the victim gave birth to a child in February. (Photo by AFP)

The issue of how the church deals with officials who abuse women has been brought to the fore in India once more when a Catholic priest was arrested in February.

Father Robin Vadakancherry of Manathavady Diocese in Kerala was arrested for raping and impregnating a 16-year-old parishioner of his and a student of a school under his management.

The girl delivered a baby boy in a church-run hospital. The infant was moved to a church-run orphanage, all without informing the authorities of the fate of the girl, a minor under Indian law. Police said the hospital's doctor and five nuns in the hospital and orphanage colluded to cover up the crime, a charge they now contest in court.

An anonymous call, obviously from someone within the circle who could not stand the cover-up, to a child helpline resulted in a police investigation and arrests. The police also said the priest used money and threats to force the girl's father to take responsibility for raping his own daughter.

It was an elaborate institutional response to protect the reputation of the church which most officials believe depends on the reputation of individuals in the hierarchy, starting from parish priests. This institutional response is not isolated but is actually the rule rather than the exception, say several women within the church structures.

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A group of such women, who have been trying their best to get the church to address this issue, met together in September 2016. The subject of their discussion was "Impact of Religion on Women in India" including women from other religions and walks of life and several women shared instances of abuse in the church.

Some were heads of church institutions and religious congregations in which these cases had come to light. Others, both male and female, had worked on high-level committees on the issue and offered suggestions to the church hierarchy.

Presentation Sister Shalini Mulackal, who teaches theology at a Jesuit seminary in New Delhi, said although men and women were equal at the start of Christian history, the egalitarian vision of Jesus was subsumed within the hierarchical structure.

Over the centuries, celibacy emerged as an essential component of Catholic priesthood, placing priests, all of them men, on a pedestal. Further, women began to internalize patriarchy and become comfortable in their situation of submission.

The meaning of the existence of the all-male hierarchy emerged as safeguarding the exclusivity and self-ascribed values of hierarchy. The value of the priesthood was then lost to the values of hierarchy. Then they began to protect their system at the cost of human values, as we seen in the latest case of the Kerala priest.

The women discussed at the September gathering how hierarchs dissuade victims from taking legal action. One case came up was of young nun who was filmed through her bathroom window by a theology-student-seminarian.  

The matter was brought to the notice of her superiors and local bishops, who convinced her not to take legal action. She later left the convent in frustration as the seminarian was allowed to continue his studies, the meeting was told.

We see a complete internalization of male domination here. The nuns' superiors opposed exposing a case that would offend church officials while the hierarchs supported the misguided young man and allowed him to continue his studies. This was done despite having proof of his misdeed, said the participants, most of them having a detailed knowledge of the case that happened in 2015.

The narrators, all senior religious women, were all deeply concerned about the lack of support women victims of abuse have within church institutions. Church authorities neglecting victims of abuse is likely to have a long-term impact on the church and its institutions and their survival and progress in the future especially at a time when fewer candidates come forward to priesthood and religious life.

Religious people take vows and make their congregations their home for the rest of their lives. Therefore, isn't it incumbent on the institutions to do their best to protect their dignity and integrity? When the church establishment victimizes and, in some cases, demonizes the whistle-blower, it only succeeds in driving the contagion deeper underground and silences anyone who dares stand up for justice or support the victim.

Any case of clergy abuse that comes to light is labelled as a "stray' and "isolated" effectively dismissing the existence of a larger issue that needs attention, the participants noted. Several cases have been covered up and the church officially has no record or study on clergy sex abuse. The church behaves as if there is absolutely no issue of clergy sex abuse in India.

A tactic of discrediting is also at work against those who stand up for justice when they are projected "anti-Christian." The hierarchs often have this question: when minority Christians are under severe socio-political pressure, what benefit do you add to the church by accusing it of sex abuses? The indirect demand is this, join us in covering up the issue.

"Since there is so little response to the situation in the church, we must treat the incidents as crimes and seek legal recourse," Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a lay theologian who champions the cause of women in the church.

Reporting individual cases or bringing out case studies piecemeal may not be sufficient to address the problem in India. The Catholic Church has issued a gender policy but it is yet to be implemented by dioceses. The issue is lack of will.

At this time, the church needs to display commitment on the issue and send a clear signal by enabling detailed, multifaceted research into the issue in a time-bound manner by a high-level, empowered professional and impartial team of scholars, both men and women, to bring out the extent of the problem and to suggest solutions.

At the same time there is an urgent need for sensitizing the church hierarchy and Catholic educators in this all-important area of human resource management, not to speak of the ethical and moral issues of which they are the guardians and standard-bearers.

As an outcome of this process, the church must also take steps to set up strong institutional mechanisms against deviations from the highest standards of moral and ethical behavior by its members with vulnerable sections in the community.

If not urgently carried out, the rot within will have serious repercussions not only for the church especially but for the Christian community overall and not only in India.

Cynthia Stephen is a writer and researcher based in Bengaluru. She is also a social worker helping women and children in vulnerable situations.

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