‘Wayward priests’ accused of sexual crimes trouble Kerala’s Catholic churches
A string of sexual assault allegations involving clergymen is turning out to be a major embarrassment for the Catholic Church in Kerala. What is more worrying is that such incidents are popping up even after Pope Francis’s call to enforce “zero tolerance” towards sexual crimes.
The latest in the series is the rape of a 16-year-old girl allegedly by a 48-year-old priest who was active in social circles in north Kerala. The incident came to light two weeks after the victim gave birth to a baby. Shockingly, there was a systemic attempt to cover up the whole incident and bail out the priest involved in the crime.
Many in the church now want a strict code of conduct for priest and nuns. And reformists blame insiders for the rot and say they are planning to send a letter to the Vatican City, seeking stringent steps to rein in what they call “wayward priests”.
“Once a crime is committed, the first reaction is an attempt to cover it up. This emboldens others also to commit the same crime,” said a spokesman of Catholic Laymen’s Association.
In the north Kerala case, police said the victim’s father, belonging to an economically backward family, was promised Rs 10 lakh to own up the crime. But a prompt investigation turned the tables on the priest. A maternity hospital and an orphanage controlled by the church are in the dock now. The accused Father Robin Vadakkumcherry, vicar of St Sebastain church in Kottiyoor, was arrested while he was planning to slip out of the country. Now police suspect he might be involved in similar other cases.
A powerful orator and administrator, Father Robin was actively involved with Indian Farmers’ Movement, that vehemently opposed two expert committee reports on Western Ghats (Gadgil and Kasturirangan) and later he was appointed as the corporate manager of 100-odd schools under the Mananthawadi Diocese.
For his disciples, the shocking incident is yet to sink in. “It is like fence eating the crop. He taught us all virtues and now he shamed us all,” said Francis Sebastain, a regular churchgoer in Pervavur. “Let this tragedy helps the church to cleanse its stables and avoid recurring of such incidents,” said Father Robin’s brother Jose Mathew while offering apologies to the victim.
“It is a shameful incident. He brought enough disgrace to 9000-odd priests in the state,” said Father Paul Thelekkat, editor of Sathyadeepam, a church-run publication. “It is sad such incidents are reported frequently these days,” said a spokesman of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference.
“Many complaints were raised against the vicar but believers were scared to come out in the open. I was told girls were sent with this help to different parts of the state and abroad offering job opportunities,” said Kannur MP P K Sreemathy after visiting the victim, now lodged in a government-run home.
This was not an isolated incident. Three months ago Father Edwin Figarez, who was a parish priest in Ernakulam district, was awarded a double life-term for raping a 14-year-old girl. Father Raju Kokkan, a priest in Thrissur district, was arrested last year for allegedly sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl. At least five major incidents of child abuse involving priests have been reported from the state in one year.
In a letter to all bishops in January this year, the Pope had begged forgiveness for the suffering of the children who were sexually abused by priests and exhorted them to take strict action to contain “the sin that shamed the church.”