Sexual Abuse by Priests: Lack of Support Services Drive Survivors to a Point of Despair

The offer by a defrocked priest to marry the woman he was convicted of raping must not be accepted by court, lest it set a bad precedent.

An application filed by a former Catholic priest belonging to the Syro Malabar tradition before the Kerala high court seeking two months’ parole to marry his rape victim has shed light on the rampant sexual exploitation of vulnerable women and girls by the clergy, in Kerala and elsewhere. 

The Kerala high court is where the priest’s appeal against his conviction is pending.

The former priest, Robin Vadakkumchery, is now 52. He was convicted by the district and sessions court at Telassery on February 16, 2019, for raping and impregnating a 16-year-old who was studying in Class XI in the parish school, of which he was the manager. He was also the priest of the St. Sebastian’s parish in Kottiyoor, a position of high status and immense power and authority.

The influence which he could exert was such that though three members of the District Child Welfare Committee (a priest and two religious sisters) were aware of the crime, they did not report it to the police as they were bound to under the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act of 2012.

On the contrary, they ‘managed the pregnancy and delivery’ in a missionary hospital and on the very next day, shifted the infant to St. Agnelo’s Foundling Home, without preparing the necessary documents and without obtaining the required permissions, so that no paper trail is left behind. The priest was arrested on February 28, 2017, just weeks after the teenager gave birth to the child, amid allegations of church officials attempting to cover up this scandal.

Robin Vadakkumchery

In his application filed on July 15, 2020, counter-signed by the victim and her parents, he stated that after his dismissal from the priesthood in March 2020, he is no longer bound by the vow of celibacy and is now free to marry. The girl is now 20, a major. Further, he is in “love with her” and wants to take care of her and the baby born due to the rape. The three-year-old is presently growing up in institutional care. He pleaded that raising a child away from parental care would traumatise the child. He also pleaded that the survivor is ‘willing’ to marry him, the very person who is convicted of raping her.

However, the special public prosecutor assigned to this case, Ambika Devi, raised her objection to his demand and questioned his intentions based on the findings of a police report. She also argued that it will set a bad precedent. The court cannot concern itself with the marriage of the convict. Its power is limited to either granting or denying parole and the grounds for granting parole are very few – death of a close family member and sickness.

Several Christian women’s groups are extremely agitated over these developments. It is an ingenious ploy and a carefully crafted legal strategy devised by astute lawyers to get the priest out of the 20-year jail term which he is currently serving. When the appeal against his conviction comes up for hearing, the fact that he has married his victim will surely portray him in positive light and help in either securing an acquittal at best or reduction of sentence, at the least. So it is a win-win situation for him, commented Virginia Saldanha, who is the Mumbai Coordinator of the Indian Christian Women’s Movement (ICWM).

Also Read: When a Defrocked Priest Seeks Bail to Marry the Girl He Raped and Impregnated

Despite multiple efforts to pervert the course of justice, including an attempt to persuade the girl’s father to own up paternity of the child, the special POCSO court had convicted the priest. Acting on a tip-off, the police nabbed the priest at the nick of time, as he was trying to leave the country to escape from the impending prosecution.

Next. the priest tried to buy the silence of the girl and her parents by offering them Rs 10 lakh. Thereafter, he pressurised the father to take the onus of the pregnancy upon himself and the victim also became an accomplice in this plan. But fortunately, the DNA report of the child conclusively proved paternity. When this ploy too failed, the priest persuaded the girl and her parents to depose that she was not a minor at the time of the incident and that the sexual intercourse was consensual. But the survivor’s birth certificate and documents obtained from her school proved that on the date of the incident, she was just 16 years old, and under POCSO even consensual sexual intercourse with minors amounts to rape.

So every legal ploy known to criminal lawyers had been exhausted. In addition to the 20-year jail term, a  fine of Rs 3 lakh was imposed and half of this amount was directed to be paid to the victim as compensation.

A plea of willingness to marry the victim made by the accused is nothing new. It is a worn-out strategy often used as an escape route in rape trials and appeals. The high premium placed on marriage in our society renders even judges to view this offer sympathetically. Since it is used routinely during rape trials, it prompted the Supreme Court, in State of Madhya Pradesh vs. Madan Lal (2015), to clearly and unequivocally stipulate:

“No compromise is legally permissible in a rape case. Such attitude reflects lack of sensibility towards the dignity of women.”

Here feminist groups are caught in a double bind. The right of a girl/woman to choose her marriage partner is a fundamental right inherent in the right to life under Article 21 of the constitution. However, in a grave offence under POCSO, when a teenager is induced into sexual intercourse by a priest thrice her age, using his status, power and authority, can the ‘consent’ be construed as “free and voluntary” under Section 90 of the IPC?

The trial court had rejected this plea and held that sexual intercourse with a minor amounted to rape as per the statutory provisions under the POCSO Act, which warrants stringent minimum punishment of 20 years.

If the court becomes complicit in aiding and abetting a marriage between the convict and his victim, what signal will it send out to society in general and future rapists in particular? Then the hard-won gains of statutorily securing stringent minimum punishment for the crime of sexual offences against minors, which is meant to be a deterrent, will come to nought. This is the main concern of feminist groups who have denounced such practices, says Brinelle D’Souza, assistant professor at the Centre for Health and Mental Health at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai who is a member of the Indian Women Theologians’ Forum (IWTF).

Unfortunately, while the focus over the last 40 years of the anti-rape campaign has been on stringent punishment, the state has not simultaneously set in place mechanisms for the protection and rehabilitation of survivors. They are left to cope with their mental trauma and the consequences of rape all on their own. Obtaining conviction for the rapist is the least of a survivor’s concern. 

Dealing with the stigma which the incident of rape brings upon her, while the social sympathy lies with the accused, especially if he is holding an influential position, becomes her major concern, which drives her to the brink of despair. Her class position renders her even more vulnerable to offers of marriage by the accused. She has to also withstand cultural traditions and societal posturing which view the rape survivor as a ‘tainted object’ unfit for marriage. Since there is a high premium on marriage in our society, judges perceive it as a favour to the victim when they ‘negotiate’ marriage with the accused. They see it as a viable option to escape from this ignominy.

Representative image of an agitation in New Delhi for women’s safety. Photo: Ramesh Lalwani/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In Majlis (an NGO based in Mumbai), we have been witnessing this trend while providing socio-legal support to victims on their journey to become survivors. While there are a few such initiatives of support to survivors in some cities, which are initiated by NGOs, cumulatively they do not even add up to a drop in the ocean. The economic compensation is a pittance and it is awarded after subjecting her to a tortuous, gruelling and humiliating procedure. This in no way helps to surmount the cultural and social barriers. If the state has the responsibility of prosecuting the accused on behalf of the victim, it also has a corresponding duty to provide restorative justice when the victim’s right to safety is violated.

In this particular case, an additional responsibility lies with the Church since the abuse took place while the accused was the parish priest and the manager of the parish school which bestowed upon him extraordinary power over minor students and provided easy access to them. The cloak of celibacy which shrouds the clergy serves victims to let their guard down and completely trust the priest, as he is respected as a representative of Christ on earth by the community. This is why this crime is viewed as the most reprehensible by Christian women’s groups. It could well be that this is not the first instance of sexual exploitation of a young student by this former priest. There might have been several who might have been exploited and silenced while the church authorities looked the other way. Only on this occasion, the crime was detected.

While sexual abuse by the clergy is rampant, the Church hierarchy has not put in place mechanisms for the financial, legal and mental health of survivors nor have they set up institutions for providing safety and security to young and vulnerable girls of tender age, away from the adverse influence of the accused/convict. This, despite having a gender policy, a sexual harassment at the workplace policy, and directives issued by Pope Francis to view such lapses seriously and despite platitudes mouthed by the highest authority, the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) presided over by the Cardinal. It is this casual approach towards sexual exploitation of vulnerable women and children by the clergy, despite a sustained campaign over several decades, that has disillusioned Christian women’s groups.

It appears that the former priest and his supporters have full access to the survivor even today. One does not even know whether he has paid the compensation as directed by the trial court or whether she has regular access to her child. The fact that she will get her child back after three years is reason enough to tilt the scales in favour of a marriage to the rapist.

Some local NGOs and women’s groups, particularly, Sisters in Solidarity (SIS) which is a loose alliance of activists and lawyers formed to provide support to the survivor nun in the well-publicised case of rape by the Bishop of Jalandhar, Franco Mulakkal, have been closely following the recent developments in Vadakkumchery’s case since it was reported in the media about a week ago. Racing against time, they are planning to file an intervener application in public interest, so that their concerns regarding the implications of the convict’s plea of marriage to his victim can be articulated when the case comes up for hearing on July 24, 2020.

Bishop Franco Mulakkal, Kerala Nun Rape Case, Catholic Church

Bishop Franco Mulakkal. Photo: Twitter

Though their intervention may not change the outcome of the application, it will at least draw attention to certain critical issues that are at stake here: using marriage to cover up violence and abuse of minors and the absence of support systems by church and state which renders victims vulnerable.

One immediate prayer could be to involve national and state-level bodies such as the women’s commissions, to shift the girl away from the influence of the convict and his supporters and even her own family, if need be, and work out immediate access to her child. The girl may have succumbed to the pressure exerted by the former priest because she may think that she has no other alternatives. Her true wishes can be ascertained only after she is provided long term counselling and support and when a clear plan for her rehabilitation and livelihood is rolled out, keeping her interest at the centre, and in consultation with her, and then submitted to the court.

We cannot let a case of complete neglect by all stakeholders to lay down a legal precedence that may prove to be detrimental for all such future cases, said Kochurani Abraham, a former nun who has been an active member of SIS and who has been involved in providing local level support to the survivor in the Franco Mulakkal case. 

It is important for the Kerala high court to lay down guidelines while entertaining a plea of marriage by the accused and send out a clear signal or else the struggle by women’s and child rights groups spanning over three decades will be in vain.

Flavia Agnes is a lawyer and founder of a Mumbai based NGO Majlils which provides socio-legal support to victims of sexual and domestic violence. She can be contacted at flaviaagnes@gmail.com.