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Police File Criminal Charges Against Asia´s Largest Charismatic Center, Some See Conspiracy

Updated: May 01, 2007 05:00 PM GMT
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Police have filed criminal charges against 10 top officials of a popular Catholic retreat center in southern India. The accused include two priests and a nun.

The charges against the Divine Retreat Center were filed on April 30 at the direction of Kerala state´s High Court, which ordered a probe of the center more than a year ago.

Billed as Asia´s largest Catholic charismatic renewal center, the complex managed by Vincentian priests is located in Muringoor, a village in Trissur (formerly Trichur) district, 2,565 kilometers south of New Delhi. It draws 10,000 people for its weekly retreats, conducted in seven languages.

On March 10, 2006, the High Court, reportedly acting on an anonymous letter and two compact discs it received, took up the case suo motu (on its own initiative) and appointed a senior police official, Vincent M. Paul, to head the probe. His team investigated allegations of sexual harassment, mysterious deaths, foreign exchange violations and management of a hospital without a license, said a police official who did not want to be identified.

Those now charged in the case are the center´s director, Father George Panackal, and administrator, Father Mathew Thadathil, a nun and seven others.

The charges come under Indian Penal Code sections dealing with criminal conspiracy, wrongful confinement, voluntarily causing harm with dangerous weapons, poisoning and tampering with evidence, the unnamed official said.

According to the probe report, 974 unnatural deaths occurred at the center between 1996 and 2006, and the bodies were disposed of without informing local police. The report further alleged that the center forged documents to make the deaths appear natural.

The center began operating three decades ago. It manages several subsidiary units on the site that house and serve poor, sick and destitute people. One such facility is Shantipuram (city of peace), which houses 450 mentally ill patients. The center also runs a de-addiction center for 150 substance abusers, and a home for 100 destitute women. Yet another facility caters to 150 widows and abandoned wives, and 300 children.

The report accused the center of running a mental hospital without a license and administering drugs without prescriptions from qualified medical professionals.

The charges are "grave and serious," says lawyer Jaya Shanker, who handles cases in the High Court. "The accused may get 10 years" hard labor, he told UCA News. Some offenses are non-bailable and the accused must appear before the investigation officer and the court, he added.

Father Panackal, in a public statement, alleged a police vendetta against the center after it challenged the High Court-ordered investigation and filed a review petition in the Supreme Court.

"Our move irritated the investigation team," which resulted in the charges, he said. "We will deal with it legally," the priest added in his statement. He asked supporters to pray for the center.

Thomas Devaprasad, a journalist-turned-charismatic leader, said he was "anguished" by the "most unfortunate" turn of events. The center is caught in "controversy and conspiracy," he added. Without elaborating, he said "time will reveal the conspiracy and expose the guilty."

Father Paul Thelakat, spokesperson for the Syro-Malabar Church, one of two Oriental Catholic Churches based in Kerala, told UCA News the Church has "faith in the judicial system and will wait for the law to take its course."

The Vincentian congregation that manages the center belongs to the Syro-Malabar Church, one of two Oriental Catholic Churches based in Kerala. They and the Latin-rite Church make up the Indian Catholic Church.

The police have only leveled charges against the center´s officials, Father Thelakat noted, and the legal process now requires they prove the charges. He added that no one can be judged guilty before the process is completed.

Nonetheless, the Church is "sad ... as one of our prime institutions is under attack," the priest-spokesperson said. "It was a center of hope for thousands of poor people who were shunted aside by society."


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