Sunday, July 30, 2023

India’s Catholic hierarchy seen slow to answer abuse complaints

Clergy abuse ‘swept under the carpet’ in Indian Church

On June 1, the Vatican accepted the resignation of Indian Bishop Franco Mulakkal, almost five years after police arrested him on charges of raping a nun. 

The Vatican “requested” his resignation, said a statement from the apostolic nunciature in India, adding that this action should not be seen as a “disciplinary measure imposed upon” the bishop.

The Mulakkal case has once again revived the demand for speedy and transparent action into allegations of clerical abuse in India as delays can lead to embarrassment for  Christians, who make up 2.3 percent in the Hindu majority nation of 1.4 billion people.

The Vatican's move in the Mulakkal case came 18 months after a lower court acquitted him, and when an appeal against the acquittal is pending in a higher court.

Mulakkal is the fourth Catholic bishop to resign over allegations of sexual abuse in India — all in the past 15 years.

In all four cases, the hierarchy failed to act on its own against the accused but moved only after public outrage and police complaints. Even when acted upon, the hierarchy made no public report of its investigation on the allegations nor explained reasons for removing the person.

In the Mulakkal case, the nun was forced to go to the police because “the hierarchy did not listen” to her complaints and those of her companions, Sister Norah Alunkal, secretary of the women’s section of the Conference of Religious India (CRI), the forum of consecrated Catholic religious in India, told UCA News.

The hierarchy also “took a position with the accused and totally ignored the alleged rape victim,” said Alunkal, a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Cluny.

Such ill-treatment of women, including nuns, happens despite the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) adopting a policy of “zero tolerance to clergy sex abuse” at its 2020 biennial plenary in Bengaluru city.

'A wall of silence'

When a nun or a laywoman complains of clerical sex abuse, “the clergy most often get the patronage of the hierarchy,” Alunkal said.

The complaint against Mulakkal came from a former superior general of the Missionaries of Jesus, a diocesan congregation functioning under his Jalandhar diocese. She accused Mulakkal of raping her 13 times from 2014-2016 at the congregation’s convent in Kuravilangad, a village in Kottayam district in Kerala state in southern India.

The hierarchy removed him from the diocese’s administrative jobs when police arrest became imminent in September 2018, four months after the nun complained to the police. And, yet he continued as the bishop Jalandhar, along with a Vatican-appointed apostolic administrator, until his resignation in June 2023.

The hierarchy's response to abuse cases follows a pattern, said Raynah Braganza Passanha, national convenor of the Indian Christian Women's Movement (ICWM).  

“The absolute wall of silence that protects the abusers, denies the abuse, blames the victim and often after a cooling off period transfers the abusers to a new place without any system of monitoring in place thereby putting a whole new set of people at risk,” she said in written response to UCA News.

There is also “a complete absence of listening to the victim. The victims, religious sisters, women, and children knock at doors of the Church leadership from the nuncio to cardinals, archbishops, and bishops, but they are met with suspicion, derision, denial, and more often than not — total silence.”

The same pattern can be seen in the case of three other bishops accused of sexual abuse.

The Vatican removed Bishop Kannikadass Antony William of Mysore (now Mysuru as of 2023) from office in January this year as public pressure mounted following allegations against him including rape and illicit relationships with multiple women.

The charges are yet to be proven but the Vatican asked him to “take a period of absence from the ministry” as the complainants included a large section of his own priests and Catholics in the diocese.

In an earlier instance, the Vatican accepted the resignation of Bishop Prasad Gallela of Cuddapah in Andhra Pradesh state in December 2018 following sex allegations. At the time, he was also accused of being the father of an 18-year-old boy.

In the fourth case, Bishop John Thattumkal of Kochi diocese in Kerala, was the first Indian bishop to face expulsion in October 2008 after adopting a 26-year-old woman as his daughter. He allowed her to stay with him in the bishop’s house. He was 58 then.

Many consider Thattumkal’s case an exception as his removal came within two weeks after the complaints. But a Church official at the time said Thattumkal would continue to celebrate Mass and perform other priestly functions, pending a probe.

However, the hierarchy has made no public announcement since then about the findings of the probe or the status of his priesthood.

The same pattern is also visible in most cases of clerical sex abuse in the Indian Church, observers note.

‘Silence is tacit support’

“The Church suspends priests mostly after courts convict them. There is not a single known case of the hierarchy complaining to police about a sex crime committed by a priest,” said Shaiju Antony of Save Our Sisters, a group formed to protect the accuser and her companions in the Mulakkal case.

“The hierarchy insists the victims should complain to the police and not the hierarchy,” Antony said. However, most victims after complaining to Church authorities do not complain to the police fearing a backlash from the hierarchy.

The lay leader wondered why members of the hierarchy do not make the outcome of their probe public. “Such steps will bring in more transparency and ensure the clergy become real witnesses to their call,” he said.

Recent cases are examples, he added.

Father Benedict Anto, a member of Marthandam diocese of the Eastern-rite Syro-Malankara Church in southern Tamil Nadu state, was barred from exercising his priestly ministries in April 2023. He was accused of sexually abusing a teenage student and four other women.

The diocese instituted an internal probe into the allegations against the priest, who is currently on bail, but diocesan officials say they do not know his whereabouts now. The officials are also not making public if the priest is suspended or if his laicization process is underway.

In Idukki diocese in the Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala, Father James Mangalasseril was removed as a parish priest in May 2020, after a video clip went viral, showing him in a compromising position with a woman working under him.

The diocese constituted an internal probe but maintains silence about its outcome or action taken against the priest.

In June 2020, the Archdiocese of Tellicherry, also in Kerala, banned Father Mathew Mullapally and Father Jose Poothottal from priestly duties following a diocesan investigation into allegations of abusing women.

Both priests served in Pottanplav parish in succession. Audio clips of recorded telephone conversations and a video that went viral on social media exposed how the priests forced and coerced many women in the parish to have sex with them.

Media reports suggest that Father Poothottal learned that his predecessor Mullapally had illicit relations with some women in the parish. He allegedly tracked the women and sought sexual favors for keeping silent.

The archdiocese apologized to Catholics for the priests’ misdeeds and urged them to “ignore the social media campaign.” But no action against the priests, if taken, was made public.

However, Mullappally, who is in his 40s, was dismissed from the priesthood in June 2022 after he converted to Hinduism and married the mother of two daughters.

In June, social media posts claimed a parish priest from Kerala’s Palai diocese had eloped with a mother of three in the parish. The diocesan chancellor issued a skimpy note saying the priest was removed from the administration of sacraments, without mentioning his offense or saying what action would be taken against him.

No redressal system

“Clerical sex abuse is a reality in the Indian Catholic Church and that needs to be addressed seriously,” says Sister Noella de Souza, who was part of a team that conducted an extensive study of property disputes between religious congregations and dioceses in India.

The study formed the basis of a book titled, "It’s High Time: Women Religious Speak up on Gender Justice in the Indian Church."

The book published in 2021 was “only for private circulation.” The study was commissioned by the women's section of the CRI, the national forum of the Catholic religious.

It wanted the CRI women to set up an investigation team to deal with “sexual abuse concerning religious sisters.” It said the issue was delicate and a general tendency is to “keep a discreet silence” and “sweep matters under the carpet.”

De Souza, who was part of the study, told UCA News that they suggested a team so that abuse cases are addressed “expeditiously as they are matters of serious concern.” 

Passanha, the ICWM national convenor, said increasing cases of clergy abuse, including those involving bishops, is only the “tip of the iceberg.”

“We tried with the bishops' conference to put in place mechanisms for grievance redressal as mandated by law, but have met diplomatic walls of promises and excuses,” Passanha told UCA News.

The hierarchy claims to have an internal mechanism for holding inquiries, but there is no information on who constitutes the committees, what their findings are, or what action has been taken, Passanha said.

“The public is not informed about it and after a sabbatical, the accused priest is transferred to another parish or institution only to become a repeat offender,” she lamented.

After consistent follow-up and advocacy, “a very watered down version of norms for addressing abuse in the Church was released, they are a well-kept secret,” she added.

 “When we asked to apply the norms to bishops facing allegations of sex abuse, we were told the norms don’t cover bishops,” Passanha said.

‘Protecting the image’

The hierarchy’s main concern seems to protect their institution. “It is a very strange allegiance, not to the teachings of Christ but to the institution,” Passanha said.

She also noticed a “total absence or, in some cases, very limited support services like counseling, legal aid or accompaniment provided” by the hierarchy to the victims of abuse.

“We need support mechanisms put in place for victims to come to for shelter, counseling, legal help, and accompaniment,” Passanha said.

The hierarchy expects people not to believe that “good holy priests can be abusers,” she said.

“It's time we woke up. The tsunami of victims, being able to find their voices and courage to claim justice will then surprise us ... at least those of us who are not too blind to see what is happening,” Passanha added.

Antony of Save Our Sisters noted that Indian bishops indulge in “cover-ups despite clear instructions from the Vatican not do so. They seem to believe in the policy of ‘you scratch my back, I will scratch yours,’” he told UCA News.

“Bishops have skeletons in the cupboard,” and therefore they do not want any action against an accused priest, he said.

“This unholy alliance of the clergy makes the life of nuns and laywomen miserable,” he added.

Vatican does take action

Father Babu Joseph, a former CBCI spokesman, however, dismissed the perception that the Vatican does not act upon abuse complaints against bishops and priests.

“I would say that the Vatican takes such allegations seriously and does its own investigation before taking any concrete action against the concerned person,” the Delhi-based priest told UCA News.

The Vatican as a responsible organization does not take remedial or even punitive action without due process as laid down in canon law, which entails a proper hearing of all parties involved in the case, he explained.

“When it comes to the high office of a bishop, the Vatican exercises utmost caution, since it has a cascading effect on the Church as an institution,” he said.

The Vatican is “always keen on establishing the truth of any allegation of personal impropriety of a bishop or a priest and will decisively act in the service of justice and truth.”

The Divine Word priest, however, admitted that Indian Church leaders could be “more prudent and careful” when dealing with allegations of abuse against bishops.

Archbishop Felix Antony Machado, secretary-general of the bishops’ conference and the official spokesman, was unavailable when contacted by UCA News for comments on the issue.