Religion

Abuse, Cover-Ups and Silence: Why India's Catholic Church Needs a Reformation

It is time to practice what the brotherhood has so eloquently preached, but so abysmally failed to practice: Visit the survivors. Support them. Speak up now.

The Year of Our Lord, 2018 was an annus horribilis for the Roman Catholic Church in India, particularly Kerala. It is not that some of the men in frocks were caught with their pants down – which can be dismissed or at least explained away as an individual aberration. It is the cover-up, the silence of the brotherhood of the pink frock.

Cover-ups, as even children know, are evidence of institutional complicity rather than individual weakness: The Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference (KCBC), Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), Roman Catholic Bishop Franco Mulakkal, Cardinal Mar George Alencherry and Cardinal Oswald Gracias all played their part.

Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas SFX, Secretary General, CBCI has a quote from Winston Churchill in his letters: “Christmas is a season not only of rejoicing, but of reflection.”

Where does one start? With the sexual abuse and rape of a housewife by a group of priests? Priests violating the confidentiality of the confessional and defiling the sacraments of confession and marriage? The repeated sexual abuse of a nun by a bishop, or the shower of petals that greeted the accused bishop on his release.

Never in living memory has the idiotai (as the faithful are derisively referred to) been so thoroughly exposed as idiots. Why else did Cardinal Alencherry think he could get away with denying knowledge of the abuse? This is despite the fact that the nuns had come to him and he had prayed over them.

Bishop Franco Mulakkal. Credit: PTI

The brotherhood first feigned ignorance of the issue  – the infamous Alencherry tapes put paid to that lie. They raised ‘jurisdictional’ limitations: Cardinal Alencherry is from the Syro-Malabar Church while Bishop Mulakkal from the Latin rite. A priest offered to buy out the survivors and was caught on tape, and is under police investigation.

Also read: ‘Bishop Franco Mulakkal Is a Symptom of the Decay of the Church’

Despite the sister survivor knocking at every ecclesiastical door, there was no response. These include personal complaints and letters to priests, bishops and the papal nuncio (ambassador) to India. Even the Pope himself was hand-delivered a letter at the Vatican. A letter with 1,000 signatures of the faithful, appraising him of the facts and pleading for his intercession.

All to no avail. The police investigation into the false case filed by Bishop Mulakkal is what finally led to the case being filed. The sister survivor was forced to part with copies of the letters written to the church authorities during this investigation.

The brotherhood used their usual tactics of isolation, defamation, character assassination and false cases. The absolute mind-control the clergy exercise over their flock is shocking. For example, in 2017 a 16-year-old girl ‘confessed’ that her father got her pregnant. In reality, it was the result of long-term sexual abuse by Father Robin Vadakkumchery, a Roman Catholic priest. She did it to ‘save the honour’ of the priest, which she equated with the church.

The sisterhood of the frock – nuns, Sisters Tessy Jose, Ancy Mathew, Aneesa, Lissy Maria and Ophilia – helpfully used their medical facilities to cover-up the role of the priest. They are now serving jail time. It shows the depth of defilement and hollowing out of Catholic institutions: from the church and the confessional, to the convent, hospital and orphanage.

From the comfort of his perch two continents away, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of India piously writes:

‘Absent a comprehensive and communal response, not only will we fail to bring healing to victim survivors, but the very credibility of the Church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world. The first step must be acknowledging the truth of what has happened. For this reason, we urge each episcopal conference president to reach out and visit with victim survivors of clergy sex abuse in your respective countries prior to the meeting in Rome, to learn first-hand the suffering that they have endured.’

He writes this as part of the organising committee of the February 2019 Papal conference on ‘Protection of minors and vulnerable adults’. Significantly, his letter is only addressed to his ‘Dear Brothers in Christ’. Not one of his ‘dear brothers’ has visited the sister survivor, though they streamed to visit the much-maligned beloved Bishop Mulakkal.

Nuns in Kerala hold a protest. Credit: Reuters

The latest salvo has been the January 1 order from the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese Apostolic Administrator, Mar Jacob Manathodath, to Father Augustine Vattoly. Father Vattoly, as the convenor of Save Our Sisters (SOS) movement, was a prominent face of the protests seeking action against Bishop Mulakkal.

The order directs him to step down as the convenor of SOS. It does not stop there. It orders him not to support associations like the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency and “respect those in authority and abide by its guidance and directions.”

Five-hundred years after the Reformation began in 1517, the Vicar of Christ realises that the Holy Roman Catholic Church is ripe for another reformation. Married clergy is not the solution when the problem is impunity. The desperate synods, conferences and consultations called by the Pontifex Maximus seem increasingly like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

A tone-deaf dance of dinosaurs – out of sync with the times, out of sync with their flock and out of sync with the values the humble carpenter’s son lived and died for.

To quote a recent report of the Associated Press,

“Across India, the nuns talk of priests who pushed into their bedrooms […] of hands pressed against them by men they were raised to believe were representatives of Jesus Christ. […] The Vatican has long been aware of nuns sexually abused by priests and bishops […] but it has done very little to stop it”

It is clear that when shepherds feign sleep, the flock must awake; when shepherds silent keep, the sheep must speak. It is time to practice what the brotherhood has so eloquently preached, but so abysmally failed to practice: Visit the survivors. Support them. Speak up now. Or be idiotai forevermore.

Edwin and Anita Cheria are the directors of OpenSpace, a policy research and campaign support organization.  

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