In recent months, there has been more than one allegation of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable women by members of the Catholic clergy in India. In almost all the cases, the bishops concerned were accused of hiding the incidents from the public and civil authorities and protecting the accused without taking punitive actions against them. As a bishop, I often wonder why the public, including members of the church and clergy, has such a prejudicial attitude towards bishops? Why do they arrive at such conclusions? Often the media plays a major role. The hierarchy fails to counter the media reports because the church has no adequate and effective mechanism to do so. Experience has taught that even the so-called Catholic media is not free from the malady of bias and prejudice against church authorities. Many a time, even they jump on the bandwagon of those accusing church authorities without ever making any effort to get firsthand knowledge of the matter. It is no secret that the media has its own varied vested interests, depending on the ideology and policies of those who run it. The news and views come to the public through an ideological prism. What comes out of the prism is almost always a distorted image. This is true of the reportage of sexual abuse by the clergy and the responsibility of bishops. The church has a policy of "zero tolerance" towards abusive clergy. Most people think that zero tolerance means punishing a person as soon as he is accused of an offence without the mandatory legal proceedings being completed. In other words, according to some people, the accused should simply be kicked out of the priesthood.
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The popular belief is that the church has a very cohesive administrative system with the power to govern itself in all matters relating to its members, including the clergy. But the fact is that each diocese and each individual church is largely autonomous, with one’s own policies and programs. Even though they share many laws in common, there is no effective mechanism to ensure that they are fully complied with or those erring ones are brought into line, let alone punished. The dioceses have hardly any coordination in those matters. Church authorities are required to follow certain canonical or legal norms for acting against offenders. If such norms are not followed, then the action will be invalid. So bishops are very careful in matters requiring punishment of the clergy, or any member of the Church, for that matter. There is an essential difference between the state’s law enforcement agencies and those of the church. Many people, including Catholics and even some members of the clergy and religious, wrongly consider the church as a parallel legal system with full power to govern itself and its members. The truth is far from it. Under the Indian legal system, the church is just like a club formed to pursue a common goal. In other words, its administrative and judicial systems have to comply fully with the Indian legal system. Any non-compliance can be questioned in a civil court. Besides, the church has no law enforcement system with coercive power. For example, the church cannot raid the premises of an institution or a member, or confiscate any material, let alone arrest any member. Even if a member of the clergy is found guilty, the maximum punishment that can be given is to dismiss him from the priesthood. Being free, he can influence and manipulate the victims and make them give statements in favor of him and against church authorities. Ultimately the authorities will bear the burnt. On the other hand, the state has no such limitations. Its power over its citizens is almost absolute, even though under the framework of a country's constitution. The church has to follow an elaborate investigation before dismissing someone from priesthood. Any deficiency in the procedure can be questioned in a civil court and its decision will be binding on the church. There have been such cases in Kerala, India. In almost all cases the civil courts will find fault with the church system and the authorities who enforce them and favor the aggrieved party. Further, the church in India is miserably deficient of the required number of trained personnel and quality infrastructure to do such work. Another point to remember is that the Church in India has no effective and efficient judicial system to practice the criminal procedural norms laid down in canon law. First of all, the "officers" of church courts are almost in every case priests or nuns. Since they lack any coercive power to question the accused, it is very difficult to get to the truth of the allegation. None can expect an accused person to confess an alleged crime. Moreover, since the accused is not in custody, there is the fear that he might take revenge upon those investigating the case. It is also unrealistic to think that clergy members will take an impartial look at a crime alleged against one of their own, because indirectly it will be a judgment against them as well. Some may also find it difficult to be impartial for fear that the church may lose respect from the public. It is almost certain that the accused will find supporters within the clergy and the faithful who will be a constant threat to the bishop by way of demonstrations and non-cooperation. In the matter of sexual abuse of minors by the members of the clergy the civil law and the church regulations do not agree with each other. The norms released by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, say that the bishop or any superior, for that matter, is to initiate the investigation only after getting a detailed written complaint from the alleged victim. On the other hand, according to India's 2012 Protection of Children against Sexual Abuse act, any person who has even a suspicion of an offence must report it to the civil authorities. There are many other procedures between church and civil codes that are contradictory. The competent church authorities need to make those procedures in tune with the civil laws in matters of allegations of sex abuse the clergy, especially those involving children. But even then, the bishops will not be able to proceed effectively because of the limitations explained. So the only feasible solution would be to leave the matter entirely to the state, with complaints made directly to the civil authorities. According to Catholic theology and the popular perception, a bishop is seen as a father to his people, especially the clergy. At the same time, he is also the judge in all cases in his diocese, including those of the clergy. The requirement that he be both the father and judge simultaneously is a near impossible task. Bishop Jose Porunnedom heads Mananthavady Diocese in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Police this year arrested a priest from the diocese after he was accused of child sex offences. Media accused the church of an attempted cover-up.