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The shameful crime that shocked an Indonesian island

Eight years after the skeletons of a former nun and her two babies were found on Flores, questions remain for the Church

The shameful crime that shocked an Indonesian island

A procession carries a statue of the Baby Jesus to meet the Blessed Mother during a Holy Week festival in Larantuka on the Catholic-majority island of Flores in 2013. (Photo: Ryan Dagur/UCA News)

The people on Indonesia’s eastern island of Flores were shocked by the discovery of three human skeletons on Jan. 27, 2013. A DNA test result confirmed that the skeletons were those of a local 30-year-old woman and her two babies. The woman was a former Catholic nun.

They were killed, or abandoned to meet their death, some 10 to 12 years previously by a local Catholic priest, Herman Jumat Masan. The remains were repatriated to the woman’s home village and finally laid to rest according to proper burial customs on Feb. 5, 2013. The two babies were the product of an affair between the former nun and the priest.

The bodies of the victims had been buried in a rubbish pit outside the bedroom of the priest at the seminary in Flores. This was such a merciless and undignified end to the lives of a mother and her two babies.

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The discovery was not a coincidence. A search had been organized by family members and police after a key witness had come forward with information. The witness happened to be an ex-girlfriend of the priest, the perpetrator. The final discovery of the bodies ended a long search for the woman, who had left her convent prior to her death.

One can only imagine the anguish of the victims’ family going through the prolonged ordeal of hope and expectations of news about their loved ones, only to be tortured by stories concerning their whereabouts.

Many rumors concerning the whereabouts of the woman were a cover-up fabricated by the perpetrator of the crime. The fabricated stories gave the woman’s parents a false hope that their beloved daughter was still alive, and that they would one day be reunited. To them, there was no reason to embark on a search for her whereabouts or enquire as to her true condition as this communication, albeit infrequent, did not raise immediate alarm that something was wrong.

The emotional and physical drain on the parents cannot be fully comprehended during the 10 or so years since their daughter “went missing” and, undoubtedly, any search would have been financially challenging given the false information as to her whereabouts.

The discovery not only shook but shamed the locals, who had been generally proud of their strong sense of attachment to Catholicism. Their religion and adat (customary law) both value life and respect for women and children. It was thus a shameful and tragic crime committed against a powerless woman and her innocent babies at the hands of a cold-blooded killer, the priest.

Masan surrendered to police in Maumere, Flores, on Feb. 4, 2013. He admitted his crime and was prepared to face the law. He was sentenced to death but later received a reduction to life imprisonment.

There is very dark undercurrent to these series of events. Undoubtedly, the woman and her killer were both Catholics. The killer left the priesthood long after the crime had taken place.

This case is interesting because Catholic priests are supposed to be celibate, which means sexual acts are considered haram or banned. However, the reality is different and these rules do not seem to be adhered to in practice. Many are found to have engaged in sexual acts, both heterosexual and homosexual.

The ideals that are the basis for the banning of heterosexual activity, as reflected in the religious vow of celibacy, are presumably due to the Catholic teaching of sexual intercourse as a means for procreation, and not for any other reason. 

Homosexual acts among the religious celibate actions are not necessarily banned precisely because it is assumed that homosexuality doesn’t exist, at least in Indonesia. Of course, the assumed absence of homosexuality in religious communities is nonsense.

Further, the discovery of the skeletons caused pain for the villagers because the vast majority of people in Flores are Catholics. They still generally see priests as their living symbols of religious piety to whom they are proudly attached. Like adat, religion still has a strong influence in the creation and recreation of the identity of Flores.

The locals are ashamed not only because the killing of a woman and her two babies took place, but moreover because the alleged perpetrator was then an active priest. Matters are made even worse when such acts desecrate the sacred grounds of the seminary compound, which strikes at the very heart of Catholic sanctity. 

Regardless of the outcome of the case for the perpetrator, there is fear that the event has put the reputation of the local Catholic Church under the spotlight. This reflects a profound crisis that shakes the foundations of the Church to its core. Clearly, the Church needs to do more in the wake of this shameful tragedy.

The sense of shame seems to be demonstrated in the reluctant coverage by some media outlets in Catholic-majority areas of Indonesia. Some reports did not even disclose the religious and priestly identity of the killer. This was not purely for legal considerations.  Understandably, this can be seen also as an attempt to avoid further damage to the reputation of the local Catholic Church.

There is strong suspicion that some Catholic clergy knew about the suspected killing a few years back. Yet due to fear and the secrecy of the sacrament of confession or reconciliation, the crime was kept under wraps. The criminal walked free within the community and was even well protected and fed by the Church. The killer was then still an active priest carrying out all his sacramental duties.

Clearly, this is not only an individual crime but could extend to the accountability and sense of morality held by church authorities, particularly if they have been involved in a cover-up. In any event, the Church needs to take action to limit any damage to public confidence and trust in their moral authority as a result of this case.

This shameful and tragic past remains a challenge to the Catholic Church institutionally.

Justin Wejak studied philosophy in Indonesia, theology and anthropology in Australia and currently teaches at the University of Melbourne. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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