Father Thomas Kottoor being taken to jail on Dec. 22 after a court convicted him and a nun of murdering a novice nun some 28 years ago. (Photo supplied)
A court in southern India has sentenced a Catholic priest and a nun to life imprisonment for murdering a 19-year-old novice nun and dumping her body in a well more than 28 years ago.
The convicts, 71-year-old Father Thomas Kottoor of Kottayam Archdiocese and 57-year-old Sister Sephy, were present in the special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), a federal agency, when the sentence was announced on Dec. 23 in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala state.
The CBI, which investigated the case, sought a maximum penalty of death, terming it a "rarest of rare cases." The convicts appealed for minimum punishment, asserting their innocence in the case.
The court on Dec. 22 had found them guilty of murdering Sister Abhaya, a member of St. Pius Convent in Kottayam district of Kerala state, on March 27, 1992, and dumping her body in the convent well.
Both Sister Sephy and SisterAbhaya belonged to the St. Joseph's Congregation, which functions under Kottayam Archdiocese.
The main witness was a thief who testified in court that he had seen Father Kottoor with another priest, Father Jose Poothrukkayil, in the convent at night in the flashlight of a torch when he entered the convent grounds.
The court also imposed a fine of 500,000 rupees (US$7,100) on each defendant for murder and an additional 100,000 rupees on Father Kottoor for house trespass
Besides life imprisonment, the convicted pair were also sentenced to seven years in jail and a fine of 50,000 rupees each for destroying evidence. The jail terms will be served simultaneously.
Cautious church reaction
An initial police investigation dismissed the case as a suicide, making some church people doubt that Father Kottoor and Sister Sephy committed the crime.
"I still doubt they committed the offense," said Archbishop Maria Callist Soosa Pakiam of the Latin-rite Archdiocese of Thiruvanthapuram when media sought his response.
However, he added: "I cannot simply declare as false the court order that has come after 28 years."
The prelate also maintained that the convicted priest and nun are members of the Catholic Church and their punishment pains the entire Church.
He observed that the convicted have consistently said they are innocent, alluding that they have the option to challenge the verdict in a higher court of justice.
Long years of investigations
After two separate investigations closed the case as a suicide, Sister Abhaya's family and rights group Abhaya Action Council, under the leadership of activist Jomon Puthenpurackal, pressed for a further probe.
The state government engaged the CBI, the premier federal agency, on March 28, 1993, to investigate the case.
After three years of investigation, the CBI sought to close the case in 1996 after saying it could not conclude if it was suicide or murder. But the court refused to accept the move and asked the CBI to continue the probe until it had a definite answer.
In 1999, the CBI confirmed the case as murder but expressed its inability to nab the culprits. It also accused the state police of destroying all the evidence and sought to close the case.
The court refused to close the case and said it was the investigators' job to find the culprits in a murder case.
The CBI formed a new team and renewed investigations on Aug. 1, 2001. After five years, on Aug. 30, 2006, the team wanted to close the case on the plea that it was a mysterious death.
The court in August 2006 again denied permission and slammed the agency for the way it had handled the case and asked it to continue with the probe.
In 2007, the agency conducted a narco-analysis test on both the convicts and Father Poothrukkayil. The investigators then claimed they had the lead required for the probe.
However, in 2008 the court found that the narco-test report had been manipulated.
In November 2008, CBI officials arrested the convicts and Father Poothrukkayil.
Police say Sister Abhaya saw the three in a "compromising position" in the convent. Sister Sephy hit the younger nun with an axe and allegedly killed her to cover their sex act. The three dumped the body in the well.
Church officials at the time dismissed the investigators' claim as "fiction."
After many such ups and downs, on July 17, 2009, charges were filed against the three. In March 2018, the court discharged Father Poothrukkayil from the case for want of evidence.