ucanews.com reporters, New DelhiUpdated: September 18, 2018 04:46 AM GMT
An Indian school student's shadow falls on a banner during a campaign against child sexual abuse in Hyderabad in November 2014. (Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP)
The Indian Church's effort to deal with clergy sexual abuse cases continues to be entangled in confusion and obscurity as guidelines bishops produced three years ago remain out of reach to Catholics.
Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal confirmed that the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India had produced a guide to dealing with allegations of clergy abusing children.
"It is not meant for public consumption. It is for bishops to address the exceptional aberration of sexual abuse of children by a member of the clergy," said the archbishop.
The bishops' conference published a guide on sexual harassment in the workplace in September 2017. It was circulated to all and reiterated the church's policy to maintain "zero tolerance" of sexual abuse of children and women.
Another confidential document, circulated only among bishops and major superiors of religious congregations, details the procedures a bishop or superior should follow in dealing with priests or other clergy accused of sexually abusing children, a source close to the conference said.
He said the "strictly confidential" guide was promulgated in November 2015 with approval from the Vatican, but the bishops' conference decided not to release it to all because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Bishops and major superiors were instructed to call their clergy and explain to them the seriousness of the issue and the procedures that would be followed, he said.
The instruction to bishops also asked them to ensure that the document "does not fall into wrong hands who could misuse it." It is due for review after three years, which falls in November this year, the source said.
Sister Talisha Nadukudiyil, secretary of the Indian bishops' office for women, said the guide dealing with sexual harassment in workplaces is effective enough to use against priests who commit sexual abuse.
Secrecy and confusion
Several members of the clergy told ucanews.com that they are not even aware of the confidential document and the secrecy about it is unwarranted and reflects bishops' lack of transparency in dealing with abuse cases.
"The bishops should release the guide. It has been prepared to check the menace of clergy sexual abuse in the church … that involves all Catholics," said Sister Kochurani Abraham, a feminist theologian.
The nun, based in the southern state of Kerala and an advocate of gender equality, said sexual violence is widespread in Indian society. "We are deeply concerned about all forms of sexual abuse, not just clergy abuse," she said.
Since it is the church's policy to maintain zero tolerance of sexual abuse, as stated by Pope Francis himself, "there is no need to make the guide a mystery document," Sister Abraham said. "It should be made available to everyone — clergy and all believers in Christ — for its better implementation."
But Archbishop Cornelio said the guide speaks "more about preventive measures than punitive actions."
After India implemented a stringent law in 2012 to protect children — the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act — the church's role is only to report any offences to police. It has no role in conducting investigations or taking punitive action, the prelate explained.
The guidelines only advise bishops and superiors about how to educate clergy to keep away from situations, he said.
"Sex abuse is not as rampant in the Catholic Church in India as is being spoken about. There may be a few aberrations but that cannot be grounds for tarnishing the church's image," Archbishop Cornelio said.
"The times have changed; laws have changed. Even an affectionate pat on a child may be misrepresented now as a sexual advance and portray someone in a poor light. We want clergy to be watchful of these changes," he said.
Salesian Father Joe Mannath, national secretary of the Conference of Religious India, said the guide was not published to all Catholics "because some bishops sought some clarification and some wanted some changes."
He added: "What we received was the policy on sexual harassment in the workplace and we follow that."
However, Sister Manju Kulapuram, national secretary of the Forum of Justice and Peace, feel such guides should get wider publicity. "Unless people come to know, how can they help church authorities deal with such issues?" she asked.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, president of the bishops' conference, failed to respond to phone calls and emails.