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Crime branch to probe sexual assault charges against Kerala priests

The issue had cropped up before the church authorities in mid-May, when a member of the Niranom diocese in central Kerala complained that five priests of the church were sexually exploiting his wife for many years on the basis of a confession made to one of them.

india Updated: Jun 29, 2018 21:53 IST
Ramesh Babu
Ramesh Babu
Hindustan Times, Thiruvananthapuram
Rape,Sexual assault,Kerala priests
The five priests have already been suspended, and denied the right to discharge ecclesiastical duties. (AFP file photo)

Kerala director general of police Loknath Behra on Friday directed the crime branch to investigate allegations of blackmail and sexual assault against five priests of the Malankara Orthodox church.

Ernakulam superintendent of police (crime branch) Sabu Mathew will head the investigation under the supervision of Kochi range inspector general of police S Sreejith, his office said.

Although police had initially said that a case cannot be filed unless a complaint is lodged, the decision was taken after the National Commission of Women directed the director general of police to probe the allegations. Former chief minister VS Achuthanandan also pushed for the filing of a case in this regard.

The issue had cropped up before the church authorities in mid-May, when a member of the Niranom diocese in central Kerala complained that five priests of the church were sexually exploiting his wife for many years on the basis of a confession made to one of them.

The man, a non-resident of India, alleged that his wife had an affair with one of the priests before their marriage, and he continued to exploit her even afterwards.

On the day of their daughter’s baptism, the wife confessed this before another priest of the church. However, instead of addressing her problem, he allegedly began exploiting her too. He later passed on the information to three of his colleagues in the clergy, who also joined in.

The husband said he came to know about the issue when he checked his bank details, only to chance upon the transactional details of a hotel booking. Upon being confronted, the woman broke down and confessed that she was being blackmailed and sexually exploited by the priests.

Although the issue was initially confined to the diocesan level, an audio clip released by the husband surfaced on the social media – causing immense embarrassment to the church. The man is heard saying in the recording that while he wants all the priests defrocked, he does not want his wife’s identity to become public. He also named the priests – three belonging to the Niranam diocese in Thiruvalla and one each from Pandalam and Delhi – in the audio clip.

Sources in the church said this is probably the first case to be registered over the exploitation of a woman on the basis of her confession. The five priests have already been suspended, and denied the right to discharge ecclesiastical duties.

The church has also welcomed the police’s decision to probe the scandal, and expressed its willingness to cooperate.

Baiju Oommen, a spokesperson of the church, said a commission of legal luminaries and priests has been appointed to look into the case. “It is a serious issue and we want the truth to come out. We will not protect anyone. We will fully cooperate with the police,” he added.

Meanwhile, church reformers have reiterated their long-pending demand that secret confessions be scrapped. The husband also made a similar plea, stating that confession as a sacrament should be brought to an end as it was being exploited by certain priests.

Unlike Catholics, the clergy of the Orthodox church do not have to take a strict vow of celibacy. However, while priests can marry if they wish, they cannot become bishops.

First Published: Jun 29, 2018 17:26 IST