Rape in the Syrian church

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I have to trust the police, I have to trust the courts; I don’t have other options,” says Jacob (name changed). The man from Thiruvalla, in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, is at the centre of a controversy that has rocked the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (MOSC). In May, he raised an allegation that his wife was sexually exploited by five priests of the Church. Two months later, he sounds worn out after relentless scrutiny. He has been called a trouble-maker and his wife, the survivor, shamed on television debates and social media. He says it has been traumatic but is hanging on to see that justice is served; justice, he maintains, the Church failed to deliver.

Cases under IPC sections 354 (rape) and 376 (outraging the modesty of a woman) have been registered. The number of accused priests has since come down to four; two arrested and granted bail and two awaiting a Supreme Court verdict on their pleas for anticipatory bail. The narrative around the scandal has taken expected turns through social media outrage and political posturing, and a counter-argument has emerged on the sexual relationships being “consensual”.

Concept of confession

The Church, across denominations, has some answering to do on two systemic flaws — the protection it provides to the tainted and its failure to adapt to social change. The MOSC, a Kottayam-headquartered non-Catholic church, is also facing calls for a re-look at the concept of confession, a sacrament allegedly misused by the accused to intimidate the survivor.

 

 

Three of the accused priests — Fr Abraham Varghese, Fr Job Mathew and Fr Jaise K George — are charged with rape while the fourth, Fr Johnson V Mathew, is facing a molestation charge. The 34-year-old survivor’s statement traces the story, over about 19 years, to her abuse by Fr Varghese when she was a minor and he was still preparing to become a priest. Fr Job Mathew who heard her confession regarding this relationship which continued after their separate marriages — MOSC priests are allowed to marry — threatened to reveal the confession and forced her into a sexual relationship. Fr Johnson Mathew is accused of molesting her in a car and sending her sexually explicit texts and
Fr George, of sexually abusing her after she revealed details about her relationships with the other priests. Among the four accused priests, only Fr Job Mathew is unmarried.

The Kerala High Court, as it turned down pleas for anticipatory bail by the priests charged with rape, observed that prima facie, the accused appeared to have acted as “predators.” Fr M O John, Priest Trustee of MOSC, acknowledges the believers’ disappointment in the wake of the scandal but says their faith in the Church remains unwavering. “It’s a serious issue and considering the number of priests involved, it can’t be called an isolated case either. The intent of the Church has been clear – in two weeks since the complaint was made, the accused priests were removed from their services and we are not extending any support to them as individuals,” he told this correspondent in Kottayam.

Polarised by opinion

Even as the Church builds its defence on an internal probe and the contention that it has already acted against the accused, in some ways, it’s also playing the victim. The voices in support of the Church have invariably pointed to a conspiracy, a staple word of defence when power centres are rattled. The narrative has also been marked by shaming of the survivor. Indulekha Joseph, lawyer and vice-chairperson of Kerala Church Act Action Council, questions the defence which banks on the argument of consensus.

“There’s a lot of talk going on regarding what separates rape from adultery. The argument is flawed because as priests, these are people who use their position in the church to avail financial and other benefits. So, when they enjoy power without responsibility, it involves cheating,” she says.

In line with times polarised by opinion, discussions around the scandal have been focused on two camps, a defensive Church and those who demand reforms in its functioning. They have largely failed to address a key stakeholder — the believer, rooted in faith but less trusting of its administrators. “When someone says that he or she was not able to speak up because of fear, I tend to believe it. We’ve all been taught to look at these priests as people who could do no wrong. The fear of being isolated in a community of the faithful is too big. It’s a mix of fear, shame and subservience to authority that works almost like a spell,” says Abraham(name changed), a hotel manager in Kottayam.

Fr John says there could, now, be reservations among believers about church confessions but points out that the one priest accused of having misused the survivor’s confession has denied the charge. The defence appears weak in the face of rising demands for reform, including in ways confessions are structured. Indulekha is among those who feel that nuns should start hearing confessions. “The priests are functioning in an age of social media while enjoying the protection of the Canon Law. This is a situation that exposes women to exploitation because when they are confessing, they can’t be sure of the priest’s credentials. Administrators of churches across denominations could even look at possibilities of a confession model that keeps the identities confidential,” she says.

Since the scandal broke, another incident of abuse involving an MOSC priest has been reported. Police in Kayamkulam, in Alappuzha district, are investigating the alleged rape of a homemaker, in 2014, by priest Binu George. Abraham says with more survivors coming out with their experiences of abuse and oppression, all churches would be forced to stop the cover-ups and bring in crucial reforms that address believers’ concerns and take the cloak of invincibility off the erring priests.

Also read: Call for transparency and reforms gets louder

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