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Catholic Retreat Center Unfazed Amid Suicide And Controversies

Updated: June 22, 2006 05:00 PM GMT
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Controversies continue to hound Asia´s largest Catholic retreat center, but an official says they view the troubles as tests from God.

The latest controversy to hit the Divine Retreat Center is the suicide of a mentally disturbed Hindu man. Vincentian priests manage the facility in Muringoor, a village in the southern Indian state of Kerala, 2,900 kilometers south of New Delhi.

According to the center´s administrator, Father Mathew Thadathil, Ramaswami Kannan, 36, jumped into a boiler June 15 and suffered burns over 80 percent of his body. The center uses the boiler, measuring 1.5 meters high and 1.5 meters in diameter, to provide hot water to thousands of people attending programs. Security guards who tried to save the man were injured.

When Kannan was retrieved from the boiler he was taken to a local hospital where he was declared dead on arrival. He had come to the center on June 11 and expressed his desire to participate in the weekly retreat program, Father Thadathil told UCA News June 19.

A local police official, K.S. Sudarshan, told UCA News the man was mentally ill and had tried to commit suicide previously. But local newspapers and some right-wing Hindu groups highlighted the suicide as further proof of the center´s "misdeeds."

On March 10, the Kerala High Court asked the state government to set up a special team to probe anonymous allegations against the retreat center including violent crimes and foreign exchange violations. "Three months have passed since the court ordered the probe. The investigation team has not visited the center," Father Thadathil said.

However, the 43-year-old priest acknowledged that other agencies such as the tax department and revenue intelligence directorate have conducted inquiries into the center´s finances. "We have provided all information demanded by the governmental agencies. We have nothing to hide," he added.

"God is testing us," the priest said, remarking on the succession of troubles. "We have no complaints against anyone. We firmly believe that God will give us the strength to pass this ordeal."

His confrere, Father George Panackal, who directs the center, says the controversies have not affected their retreat programs. "We are running the weekly retreats in full strength," he told UCA News.

The center conducts weekly retreats in six Indian languages and English throughout the year. More than 10,000 people from various religions attend the programs. "We will continue to serve the needy in the manner we have done earlier," Father Panackal asserted.

Shaju John, a Catholic living near the center, believes the controversies are part of a wider conspiracy to defame the center. He recalled the troubles started two years ago when the center dismissed the caretaker of an orphanage it manages.

"Since then, the local media have painted the center in a bad light. The priests took the matter lightly, and now they are paying for it," John, 35, told UCA News.

The local press has published a series of negative articles about the center over the past year. Right-wing Hindu groups have led campaigns against it, accusing it of mass conversions of Hindus.

The "ill-motivated media campaigns" do not affect "our team," Father Thadathil said. "We are servants of God. We don´t take anything personally." Many people come to the center "as the last resort," he continued. "We are surrounded with people who live in despair. We don´t get time to think about our problems."


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