Priest sentenced for sexual assault of teenage girl in India

Court said he did not deserve leniency as he 'misused his position as a vicar'
Priest sentenced for sexual assault of teenage girl in India

A television screen grab of police escorting suspended Catholic priest Edwin Figarez from a special court on Dec. 8. He was sentenced to double life in prison for raping a girl in 2015. ( TV screen grab/Manorama Vision)

A Catholic priest was given a double life sentence on Dec. 8 for raping a girl in his parish in the first such case in Kerala, an Indian state with a large Christian population.

A special court in Ernakulum district convicted Edwin Figarez, 41, former vicar of Lourdes Matha Church in Kottapuram Diocese under a law against the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children.

According to the complaint lodged by the victim's mother, Fiagrez sexually assaulted her 14-year-old daughter when she went to him for confession and continued to assault her during January – March 2015.

The girl disclosed the incident to her mother after her schoolteachers became concerned about changes in her behavior. The girl's mother informed the police after a medical examination confirmed the abuse.

The accused priest went into hiding after the police registered a case against him in April 2015. He surrendered in December only after two of his brothers were arrested and charged with helping him escape.

Besides the jail term, the court also imposed a fine of 215,000 rupees (US$3,250). The court also sentenced his brother to one year in prison for helping him hide.

"I'm innocent. I'm completely innocent," the suspended priest told media as police escorted him out of court into a police vehicle.

The court said that the priest did not deserve any leniency as he had "misused his position as a vicar." The court observed that the accused had not only assaulted the child "but also betrayed the believers of the church."

It is the first time that a Catholic priest has been punished under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act in Kerala. Some 18 percent of Kerala's 35 million people are Christians and are considered politically and economically influential.

Diocesan spokesperson Father Rocky Roby told that a diocesan commission conducted a detailed investigation into the incident. "Its report is now under the consideration of the Holy See. We will take further action regarding the priest on the direction of the Vatican," Father Roby said.

Father Sebastian Jacobi, vicar general of the diocese, said the diocese has not offered any assistance to the victim or her family. The family has not requested any support from the church, he said.

"She is continuing her studies in a higher secondary school under the diocese. We are told that she is doing well and does not need any special care," Father Jacobi said.

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