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Court Orders Probe Of Largest Catholic Retreat Center

Updated: March 12, 2006 05:00 PM GMT
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Local Church people say they welcome a court probe into allegations against a retreat center in Kerala state.

On March 10, the Kerala High Court asked the state government to set up a special investigation team to probe allegations against the Divine Retreat Centre, considered one of the largest Catholic retreat centers in the world. Thiruvananthapuram (formerly known as Trivandrum), the Kerala capital, is 2,815 kilometers south of New Delhi.

The court acted on an anonymous letter and two compact discs it reportedly received alleging a series of crimes against the center such as murders, rape and foreign exchange violations.

Vincentian priests manage the center in Muringoor, 264 kilometers north of Thiruvananthapuram.

The court took up the case suo motu (on its own initiative) and appointed a senior police official, Vincent M. Paul, to head the probe team. Judge K. Padmanabhan Nair has asked the team to file its report within two weeks. He has also asked the government to provide support to the team.

Father George Panackal, the center´s director, says his people welcomed the court order and police probe. "The investigation can bring facts into light and help prove the allegations are baseless and motivated," the Vincentian priest told UCA News a day after the court order.

Father Paul Thelakat, spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church, says the Church respects the court order. "Let the inquiry be done and truth come to light," the priest said while speaking with UCA News. The center comes under his Oriental Catholic Church´s Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.

Father Panackal said there have been several attempts in the past to "defame the institution and its leadership." He cited the case of Crime, a monthly magazine that carried several reports against the center. "We did not initiate legal action against the magazine because we preach forgiveness and believe that truth can never be suppressed," the center´s director explained.

Father Panackal claimed that the Divine Retreat Center is the largest retreat center in the world. It has served more than 10 million people from all over the world since 1990. The center conducts weekly retreats in six Indian languages and English throughout the year.

Explaining the origin of the retreat ministry, Father Panackal said it began in 1977 at Potta, a village six kilometers north of Muringoor. The center shifted to Muringoor in 1990, after the staff found facilities at Potta inadequate for "huge crowds." The center now has 400 professionally trained counselors to guide people attending the retreats, in addition to about 1,200 volunteers from all over India who coordinate the center´s activities.

The center also manages several subsidiary units that serve "thousands of people" in distress, Father Panackal said. "We never close our doors to anyone who seeks our help. We provide them a family environment and care," he added.

One such unit is St. Vincent Home, which houses 87 adults and 13 children infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that usually leads to AIDS. "They experience a new life and inner healing," the priest explained.

Another unit is Shantipuram (city of peace), which houses 450 mentally ill patients. Father Panackal said the retreat center plans to set up an institution by 2007 to cater to 2,000 mentally challenged people.

The retreat center has opened Divine De-addiction Center, which helps 150 substance abusers. Maria Shanthi Bhavan (home of peace), started in November 2004, houses 100 destitute women. Another home, started in 1990, caters to some 150 widows and abandoned wives, and 300 children.

Father Panackal said he mentioned all these activities "not to impress anybody, but to clarify our mission." He added that he regrets the court did not hear their views before issuing the probe order.

Legal trouble for the center began eight months ago when a woman claiming to be a former employee of the retreat center told a magistrate that a priest official of the center raped and impregnated her. The woman, Mini Varghese, was been in judicial custody in a theft case when she made the complaint.

Father Panackal said a Hindu police official investigated the allegations reported them as baseless. "I told the police official that we are ready for the DNA test. But they told us that their investigations proved the complaint is a pack of lies and there is no need for DNA tests," the priest said.

Father Panackal added that the center had not employed any Mini Varghese and that it has no priest with the name the woman mentioned. But he recalled one Mini Varghese who attending a retreat program 10 years ago. "Her father brought her and we have no knowledge about her (afterward)," he said.

Father Panackal suspects the allegations are part of a conspiracy to defame his center, a view shared by Paul Pallan, a local Christian politician.

"I have never attended the retreat at the center. But I feel the court should have given the retreat center an opportunity to hear its views," Pallan told UCA News. He said thousands of families benefit from the center.


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