Supreme Court sends notice on PIL over forced sacramental confessions
The Supreme Court on Monday issued notice on a public interest litigation (PIL) that questioned the practice of sacramental confession before a priest as violative of an individual’s privacy and human dignity. The petition highlighted instances in the recent past where women in the church were sexually exploited or even raped by priests who blackmailed them, threatening to publicise their confessions.
A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde issued notice on the petition filed by three Christians from Ernakulam, Kerala; all three claim to be members of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.
The bench, also comprising justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, issued notice to the Centre, the Kerala government and the head of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church known as Catholicos with its headquarter at Devalokam, Kottayam, in Kerala.
The three petitioners, Mathew T Mathachan, PJ Shaji, and CV Jose, said in their petition: “The compulsion to confess is a serious intrusion into the privacy of a person… This pernicious practice of forced, compulsory, and mandatory confession from every member (both men and women) is causing several other problems including sexual exploitation of women and blackmailing.” The petition claimed that even men are exploited, with money being extorted from husbands to keep their wives’ confessions secret.
Reacting to the Supreme Court decision, spokesperson of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian church Father Johns Abraham Konatt said: “Confession is one of the seven sacraments of the church. There may be some cases of misuse but it is difficult to do away with the system. Only an ordained priest can deal with confessions and grant absolution.” He said sacramental confession forms a part of belief and remission of sin paramount to a believer. The church will file a reply as directed by the apex court soon, he added.
Church reformists lauded the move.
The demand to do away with sacramental confession gained ground after two cases surfaced in central Kerala in 2018 in which priests allegedly sexually exploited women, leveraging their confessions. After these cases kicked up a controversy, the National Commission for Women also favoured abolition of confessions.
In one of the cases, a husband wrote to the church head alleging that five priests blackmailed and raped his wife using her confession. In response, the church disrobed all the priests and they were arrested later. The trial of the case is on.
In 2018, a similar petition was filed in the Kerala high court by a church reformist, CS Chacko. He contended that imposing implied or expressed compulsion on a believer to confess a sin before the priest infringed upon the right to privacy. He said it was violation of Article 21 (right to life and personal liberty) guaranteed by the Constitution. But the court dismissed the petition stating that the Constitution also mandates that a person has the right to join or leave a religion as per his choice and there is no compulsion on this.
The present petition, while citing violation of Article 21, attacked the Malankara Orthodox Church’s constitution, which was written in 1934.
The petition cited sections 7 and 8 of the constitution of the church that required all parish members -- men and women above the age of 21 years to undergo confession once a year in order to be a part of the parish assembly and to vote in its elections or be eligible to become part of the managing committee. Section 8 requires a confession register to be maintained in each parish. Members who flout these provisions risk losing their membership. In addition, the petition even questioned the practice of money collected by the parish under various heads, which, if not paid, can entail removal of the member from the parish register.
Senior advocate Sanjay Parikh, appearing for the petitioners, submitted that the 1934 constitution was immune from any challenge before any civil court or high court in Kerala as per a decision of the apex court passed in KS Varghese v St Peter & St Paul Orthodox Church (2017) and that for this reason, both the police and state have adopted a hands-off approach, forcing the petitioners to approach the Supreme Court.
The petition said, “When confession becomes the platform or medium through which rapes and sexual exploitation are carried out by predator priests, there is no reliable safety mechanism for victims who are physically and mentally scarred.”