2000-11-28 00:00:00

Catholics in Kerala state, southern India, have expressed joy over the vindication of a priest 34 years after he was sentenced to death for killing a woman he allegedly impregnated.

The "Deepika" (little lamp), a Church-run daily, revived memories of "the biggest crisis" the Catholic Church faced in the state in the 1960s, when it reported Nov. 25 that relatives of the real criminal had sought forgiveness from Father Benedict Onamkulam, the accused.

The Changanacherry priest was accused of murdering Mariakutty, a Catholic woman, after impregnating her. She was found dead with stab wounds June 16, 1966. The police arrested Father Onamkulam, then in his 40s, after they found some bloodstained clothes in his place.

His trial rocked Kerala, a Christian stronghold, in the late 1960s. The trial court condemned the priest to death for rape, impregnation and murder. But the Kerala High Court acquitted him in 1967 for lack of evidence.

As investigators failed to find the suspects, some believed that the priest had escaped punishment because of the Church´s "money-power."

Thomas Kurien, a retired Catholic schoolteacher in Palai diocese, said until now he considered Father Onamkulam a "liability" to the Church.

Father Onamkulam told "Deepika" he is happy the truth has finally triumphed. Changanacherry archdiocesan chancellor Father Gregory Naduviledam also said the Church is happy the priest has been proven innocent before the people.

Father James Thalachalloor, Kanjirappally diocesan chancellor, told UCA News that Father Onamkulam´s case was "the biggest crisis" the Catholic Church faced in Kerala in the late 60s.

Father Albert Nambiaparambil, a dialogue promoter, said Father Onamkulam was the first Christian priest to be sentenced to death in India.

The Carmelite of Mary Immaculate priest recalled that parishes in Kerala had conducted prayer vigils and family prayers for the priest, whose "story still gives me the goose pimples." He said the Church knew that the case was "concocted" but had "no means to prove it" at that time.

Kurien told UCA News that he now considers Father Onamkulam a saint because none in Kerala Church´s recent history has suffered like him.

After his acquittal in the 60s, the archdiocese assigned Father Onamkulam to far off missions. Now retired in his 70s, he lives with relatives in his hometown of Kottayam, some 2,650 kilometers south of New Delhi.

The priest told "Deepika" that a 93-year-old woman, her sons and grandsons met him last Jan. 14 and admitted that Mariakutty, then 43, died during an abortion. It was done by the old woman´s physician husband at the insistence of an estate owner, who had impregnated her.

They admitted that the woman´s body was dumped in a roadside ditch after stabbing her with a dagger to make it appear that she was murdered, and later they influenced the autopsy to frame the priest.

The priest said the doctor´s descendants cried and knelt before him as they pleaded for forgiveness, saying the doctor and the estate owner had died. They sought refuge in a retreat center after they lost their wealth, suffered various diseases and produced retarded children, he was told.

The doctor´s family had visited the priest after confessing to a counselor at the center about their father´s role in the case, a secret they had guarded for decades. They were encouraged to ask for Father Onamkulam´s forgiveness.

Father Onamkulam said he had long forgiven those who framed him, adding that he kept the family´s visit a secret for nearly 10 months but decided to have it published only for the common good after the doctor´s wife died Oct. 21.

An "overjoyed" Father Naduviledam described the family´s revelation as a lesson about the crime against God and people in blaming the innocent.

Rosamma Jose, a nurse tutor in New Delhi, recalled Father Onamkulam´s visit to her home parish soon after his release from jail. The priest´s fingernails had been pulled out when he was under police custody, she said.

She remembered Father Onamkulam saying he was tortured for his refusal to divulge a confessional secret.


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