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Church sex scandal: reform calls get louder

Last Updated : 03 July 2018, 13:06 IST
Last Updated : 03 July 2018, 13:06 IST

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On a day the Kerala Police Crime Branch registered a case of rape against four priests of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (MOSC), Johnson* talks about an inner conflict. He is a believer, disappointed with the ignominy but taking a line of defence. The businessman from Thiruvalla, in Pathanamthitta district, says his faith in the Church and its functioning is firm but he wants a fair probe and stringent action against the priests if found guilty.

The priests – Fr Abraham Varghese, Fr Job Mathew, Fr Johnson V. Mathew and Fr Jaise K. George – are accused of intimidating a married woman into sexual relationships.

Johnson’s take is endorsed by many believers, their caution laced with muted outrage. With the police taking over the investigation, an internal probe initiated by MOSC could lose its relevance but sources in the Kottayam-headquartered Church say the probe is crucial in addressing believers’ concerns. Even as the Church acknowledges turbulence the allegations have set off, it has its task cut out in defending its failure to act on the initial complaint.

The complainant – the woman’s husband – had approached the Diocese of Niranam in May, before filing a petition with the police. “The woman is yet to appear before the Church to make her statement. The complainant only sought action under the Canon Law and it was the Church which advised him to proceed legally,” a MOSC representative told DH. The allegation that the Church attempted a cover-up is baseless because all the accused – initially, five priests – were removed from official positions, he said.

NOT ABOUT A CHURCH: Members of Open Church Movement (OCM), an initiative which advocates reforms in the Catholic Church, maintains that sexual abuse and use of power in silencing victims is a shame many churches share. “Every church has a core group of people who use power, money, threats and all kinds of influence to protect erring priests and nuns. These priests are projected as all-powerful who could do no wrong. It’s like mobilising adulation out of blind allegiance. It’s not about religion or faith, it’s about churches acting as power centres with own interests,” Reji Njallani, OCM chairman, said.

Over the past couple of years, priests affiliated to different Kerala churches have faced allegations of rape – including of minors – and financial wrongdoings. The Syro Malabar Church is under fire over its failure in acting on a nun’s allegation of rape against Franco Mulakkal, Bishop of the Diocese of Jalandhar. The Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese under the Church is also facing allegations of financial mismanagement. The response from the churches has, typically, been guarded and at times, non-committal. MOSC follows the familiar line which alleges a smear campaign against the Church.

“The initial complaint had mentioned five priests but only four have been booked. What if more turn out innocent? The Church will not protect the guilty but we are only asking the critics to distinguish between the accused and the guilty,” Biju Oommen, MOSC association secretary, said.

Reji said the crisis of credibility was real and called for stringent corrective action. “The question is, how do we ensure accountability? We’ve taken up several issues including the plight of nuns living with severe mental depression, after being subjected to various forms of harassment. But there was no follow-up action,” he said.

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Published 03 July 2018, 12:34 IST

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