Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of Bishop Accountability, speaks at a press conference on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church at the Foreign Press Association in Rome on Feb. 17. (Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
A Catholic diocese in southern India has initiated a probe against one of its senior priests after parishioners accused him of having sexual relations with a woman in their parish.
Idukki Diocese of the Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala has suspended Father James Mangalasseril from his post at St. George Forane Church in Vellayamkudi village, an official press note said on May 21.
"It is true the bishop has suspended the senior priest and ordered a detailed probe into the allegations," said Father Jose Plachickal, the vicar general and public relations officer of the diocese.
Father Plachickal described the allegation against the senior priest — a former vicar general of the diocese and rector of its minor diocesan seminary — as "unfortunate."
The diocese has removed the accused from all his priestly ministries and administrative roles in the parish and the diocese, Father Plachickal said. A three-member diocesan team has been appointed to probe the charges, he told UCA News.
The diocesan clarification came after social media and online news portals carried pictures of the priest in compromising positions with a married woman, who worked in the diocese.
Social media platforms are abuzz with critical comments about church policies, sexual abuses and Catholic priestly celibacy.
Some online news portals carried explicit pictures of the priest and the woman standing close to each other and projected the case as a violation of social distancing rules during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown that began on March 25.
Father Plachickal said the priest was suspended on March 24 within a couple of days of the diocese receiving a complaint from some parishioners.
Biji Joseph, a parishioner, said the allegations and the removal of the priest were "unbelievable."
Since the allegations became public on social media, "we thought it was all rumor," said a female parishioner. "He is such a gentle and nice priest — none of us took it seriously."
As parish programs have been suspended, she said, no one even knew about the priest's removal. "We came to know of it only through the media," she said.
The lockdown is scheduled to be lifted on May 31 and all worship places remain closed.
The pictures of the priest and the woman, reports said, were leaked to the media from a mobile phone repair shop where the priest had taken his phone for repairs.
Some demanded action against the shop owner for releasing private data to the public as it violated the priest's and the woman's privacy.
"It is also a violation of Indian information technology law, and the shop owner could be prosecuted," said Anurag Singh, a lawyer at Madhya Pradesh High Court.
The Catholic Church in India has announced a policy of "zero tolerance" of sex abuse but has no history of dismissing a priest for sexual violations until after civil authorities act.
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India in its biennial meeting in February vowed to fight clerical sexual abuse of women and children in the Church and its institutions.