Church leaders in Bangladesh are perhaps relieved that a series of brutal gang rapes in the country have overshadowed and shifted public and media attention from the arrest of a priest on allegations of raping a minor girl.
Father Prodip Gregory, 41, a parish priest in Rajshahi Diocese, was arrested by police on Sept. 29, a day after the elder brother of the girl sued him.
He is the first Catholic priest from the minority Christian community to be arrested for rape. If found guilty, he will be the first priest to serve a jail term for rape.
Bangladesh’s rape law defines sexual intercourse with anyone under 16, even if consensual, as rape, with a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
The case garnered heavy media coverage in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, where people hear cases and punishment of Muslim clerics for rape now and then, but never about Christian clergy.
This shocking spotlight on the Church over alleged rape is a result of negligence, ignorance and cover-ups and public outbursts from many latent cases of sinfulness by clergy for decades.
Cover-ups and shooting the messenger
The Bangladesh Church has many dedicated, honest and holy clergy and religious serving people selflessly as models in their respective communities.
But there are also clergy (also religious) in various places who are clericalist, careerist and immoral. They are no less sinful than pedophile and fake celibate clergies in Europe, the Americas, Australia and various parts of Asia who caused irreparable damage to the Church.
However, the global fallout over sexual and child abuse, and even a number of cases against priests and a bishop in neighboring India, didn’t bear lessons.
In Bangladesh, every region inhabited by Catholics has such problems. There were cases of priests being confronted and assaulted by people for alleged immoral acts with women and girls.
Yet very few people have the guts to speak up or seek redress, fearing a backlash from church officials. In most cases, the priests are quickly transferred to other places with little to no reprimanding. Save for a few cases, church officials have been highly successful in covering up immoral and even criminal acts of the clergy.
For example, Father Gregory was accused of sexually abusing a minor girl at a church-run hostel in Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Naogaon district about a decade ago.
He was suspended from the priesthood and sent to another diocese for "sanitization" before reinstatement. On the other hand, the family of the victim was somehow managed and the issue was hushed up.
This time he has been suspended from priestly ministries. Local media reported that church officials sought to silence the victim’s family with promises of compensation through an out-of-court settlement or arbitration. The family rejected the deal, sought legal justice and the beans were spilled.
Arbitration is a popular dispute resolution method but not legally permitted for serious crimes like rape and physical attack. A good number of church leaders and clergy are in the dark about the legal perimeters of such issues, and many take for granted that by the virtue of clericalism they are above the law.
Victim blaming, shaming and intimidation are rife in most cases and vilification of the media for reporting the messy affairs is common.
In 2011, Father Bernard Tudu, a Catholic priest in Rajshahi, was arrested and sent to jail for allegedly brokering an out-of-court settlement over the rape of 14-year-old Serafina Mardi by nine men. The Santal girl committed suicide following social ostracism by her alleged rapists.
In 2015, UCA News reported that Father Patras Hembrom, a priest from Dinajpur Diocese, faced a court case from a woman for allegedly having an affair for years with the promise of marriage. Later the priest managed to flee to India to avoid legal action and the diocese suspended his priesthood.
In 2018, UCA News reported that Father Walter William Rozario, who went missing before Pope Francis’ visit in 2017, had been accused by police of having illicit relations with women and girls and embezzling church funds.
In each case, church officials accused journalists of being anti-Church and non-credible. In fact, the media has only intended to bring to light the hidden truth for a better Church.
Those cases were warnings for church leaders, but they were only ignored and forgotten.
An image crisis
Despite being a tiny minority forming less than half a percent of Bangladesh's population of more than 160 million, Christians are held in high regard for their significant contributions to education, healthcare and social development thanks to great work by Christian missionaries in past centuries.
That long-held good image of Christians has taken a hit over Father Gregory’s case. Bangladeshi Christians at home and abroad reacted angrily, online and offline. On Christian Facebook groups, people demanded exemplary punishment for the priest and even for his alleged backers.
Church leaders have been harshly accused of covering up many cases of immoral activities by clergy and criticized for not clarifying the Church’s position officially through press statements or conferences. Some Muslims accused the entire Church of being hypocritical with no moral credibility.
If church leaders could visit those groups, they should have felt disgusted and ashamed of what people think and say about them.
It is unclear why church officials didn’t adopt a crucial “regret and reform” policy to restore public image. If Pope Francis can apologize to people for clergy sex abuse, why not local bishops?
This loss of control and mishandling of the situation reveals the Church has yet to adopt an effective crisis management and communication mechanism for such crisis.
Code of conduct
Pope Francis has made significant attempts to restore the global Church’s image after it was tainted by clergy sex abuse, including the formation of the Pontifical Council for Protection of Minors, strong guidelines for zero tolerance of child abuse and urging local churches to have a code of conduct for clergy.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh promulgated a code of conduct for clergy in 2014, created a child protection desk and adopted a child protection policy.
Among other things, the code of conduct notes: “They [priests] do not engage in sexual harassment or in physical, sexual or emotional abuse of anybody. Any charges against a priest regarding sexual abuse of minors will be taken seriously. If the fact is proved true, compassion will be shown to the victims and help will be sought for the priest. Victims will be aided in any way necessary. The priest will not be allowed in situations where such behavior could be repeated.”
Father Gregory’s alleged immorality and unreported similar cases bring forth the question whether those efforts have really made any difference.
The latest case needs to serve as a great lesson for the Church in Bangladesh. Church leaders in their dioceses should enforce the code of conduct for clergy and form a commission headed by the bishop in each diocese to figure out and act promptly against any unruly and immoral clergy who could cause a similar crisis in the near future.
In the case of Father Gregory, the Church must not try to influence the legal justice system by any means. Since it has become a media hot cake, any such attempt would backfire and destroy whatever credibility the Church has today.
The Catholic Church has made many great achievements over the centuries. Church leaders should make every effort to clean up any dirt to keep up this hard-earned pride and image.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.