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How CCTV cameras inside Mumbai church are pitting followers against each other

On Saturday, groups supporting the priests walked to the Mahim police station to submit a memorandum supporting the priests

mumbai Updated: Sep 11, 2017 12:40 IST
Police said that they have spoken to the women who felt the cameras were obtrusive(Representational photo/HT )

Surveillance cameras inside the women’s washroom at one of the oldest churches in Mumbai has divided the city’s Catholics.

After two women filed a police complaint against the management of St Michael’s Church, Mahim, founded in the sixteenth century by Portuguese missionaries (the church building has been reconstructed), accusing the priests of voyeurism and stalking, other community associations have called it a campaign to defame priests.

On Saturday, groups supporting the priests walked to the Mahim police station to submit a memorandum supporting the priests. They said they will consult their lawyers on Monday to discuss legal action against those accusing the priests of crime.

The police have not yet registered a First Information Report, which is a formal acknowledgement that a criminal offence could have been committed, but have said that they are investigating the complaints.

Police said that they have spoken to the women who felt the cameras were obtrusive.

St Michael’s is one of the important religious shrines in Mumbai, and the special prayers on Wednesday, a 70-year-old tradition, is attended by people from different religions.

The church said that the cameras were put up after complaints of thefts in the washrooms, but a group called the Association of Concerned Catholics (AOCC) said that the devices violate voyeurism and stalking laws.

“The cameras can film women in a private affair. Applying lipstick or combing hair in front of the washroom mirror is also a private affair,” said Joseph Sodder, a lawyer and member of AOCC.

“Thousands of people visit the church for the daily masses (religious services) and for the Wednesday prayers. Hundreds of women use the wash room,” said another member of the group. “When women complained the priests said the cameras will be removed, but they have done nothing. The cameras have been there for years.”

It is not clear why the issue has become news now. Both groups agree that the cameras have been there for three years. Why did the groups not protest when the cameras were installed?

One person explained that this was because the warning about that the premises was under surveillance was put up a few weeks ago.

The other side has argued that the warnings were put up when the cameras were installed.

The priests have pointed out that there are similar cameras in the men’s toilets too.

The cameras in the women’s loo are in the common area near the entrance, and according to some women, do not infiltrate the toilet cubicles.

The presence of similar surveillance devices in the men’s toilet cannot justify the cameras in the women’s washrooms, said Sodder. “Basically it is what the woman thinks what is an intrusion. Voyeurism laws cannot be applied for the cameras in the men’s washroom.”

The AOCC has accused the other groups of trying to cover-up crimes by the clergy. “They took out three protest marches when a priest at a Govandi church was accused of sodomising a child in 2015 (the accused is in custody and the case is under trial). There were allegations that other children were similarly abused. The whole issue was being covered up,” said Sodder.

The groups supporting the priests do not see it as an attempt to cover-up the case.

“The Catholic community wants to talk against the defamation of priests, spoiling the names of the priest by saying things that are totally untrue,” said Rita D’Sa of the Bombay Catholic Sabha. “For us it smacks of mischief because the matter never came up earlier. The images from the CCTV cameras are seen in a locked room, the priests are not watching the footage.”

D’Sa said that a majority of those who took part in Saturday’s protests were women and they agreed that the cameras were needed. “We have no idea why the complaints have been filed suddenly.”

First Published: Sep 10, 2017 22:49 IST