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Catholic Priests Sue Newspapers For Defaming Them In Sex Scandal

Updated: June 04, 2003 05:00 PM GMT
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Five Catholic priests in northeastern India have filed court cases against two newspapers for accusing them of a sex scandal.

The priests of the Society of the Divine Savior, popularly known as Salvatorians, have also agreed to undergo DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) genetic testing to prove none of them is responsible for their cook´s pregnancy.

The newspapers reported that the priests had illicit relations with the unmarried cook leading to her pregnancy.

Church people including Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati, in whose archdiocese the priests work, suspect the case as another instance of Hindu right-wing groups using the media to tarnish the Church´s image. They commonly accuse the Church of trying to convert Hindus to Christianity.

The Salesian archbishop told UCA News June 3 that some journalists "always like to sensationalize stories, and their target is Christians always."

The Salvatorian priests manage Sacred Heart Parish and Christ Jyoti (light) School in Nagaon, Assam state, 2,080 kilometers east of New Delhi.

Archbishop Menamparampil said Hindu fundamentalists in the region "harp on the conversion issue when there are no conversions taking place." He said Church people have refused to be dragged into the issue and have kept silent.

Salvatorian Father Prakash Kizhakkekarakal, in charge of Sacred Heart Parish, told UCA News he cannot rule out involvement of Hindu fanatic groups in the case. Such groups, he said, "are out for our blood, creating these canards by teaming up with some yellow journalists."

He added, however, that local people do not believe the "blatant lies" published in the papers and support the priests. "People still respect us. They are friendly and they do not believe in these rumors," he added.

The archbishop and Father Kizhakkekarakal both suspect some journalists may have grudges against Catholic schools for not admitting their children.

The woman the papers link to the priests, Drina Timung, 24, worked as a cook at Christ Jyoti. She was determined to be eight months pregnant in the last week of April.

The priests allege that "Aji," an Assamese-language newspaper, and "The Sentinel," a Hindi-language paper, "misrepresented facts" to suggest the priests were responsible for the woman´s pregnancy,

Jesuit Father Ravi Sagar, a lawyer, filed civil and criminal defamation cases against both papers May 28 in the state High Court on behalf of the priests. The court told the newspapers to file responses by June 23.

Salvatorian Father Vara Prasad Rao, one of the priests named, told UCA News they "have all the proof to prove our innocence." This includes a voluntary statement Timung made before local leaders in which she identified Binu Kolta, the school´s watchman, as the father of her unborn child. Kolta, 17, admitted to being the father in a separate written confession, Father Rao said. He added Timung´s father asked the priests not to file a police case against Kolta, as it would bring the family public disgrace.

"It is a matter of great shock that a complete misrepresentation of facts took place in the newspapers," Father Rao said.

The accused priests issued a joint statement in which they expressed their willingness to undergo DNA testing, as this would demonstrate that none of the priests is the father of the baby.

"We are here to serve the people of Nagaon and Assam, and will continue to serve them. Those who are on the side of truth are bound to suffer. That will not prevent us from serving the people of Assam," their statement said.

Archbishop Menamparampil regretted the newspapers´ "twisted news" even after the child´s "real father" owned up and the priests agreed to a DNA test.

The prelate said the newspapers stopped publishing further stories on the issue after the court cases were filed. "But they are out to malign our name for sure," he added.

In its May 9 report, "Aji" termed the case "the worst scandal on a woman" that revealed "the real face" of Church workers. It said the incident occurred amid reactions all over Assam against Church workers´ "aggression."

The paper accused the priests of victimizing the girl to satisfy their sexual desires in the tight security of their institution. It further alleged that they tried to "manage" the journalists by bribing them.

On May 11, the "Sentinel" named Father Kizhakkekarakal as responsible for making Timung, the "poverty-stricken prey of his lust," pregnant.

Father Sagar said he took up the case because the news reports "directly implicated the priests" and their allegation "was simply not true."

If the priests win the civil case the newspapers will have "to pay compensation, and in the criminal (case), they will be punished," Father Sagar told UCA News May 30.


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