An application by a defrocked priest of the Catholic Church, for interim bail to facilitate the preparation of his marriage to the 20-year-old, who he had raped and impregnated when she was hardly 16, has opened a Pandora’s box.
The ex-priest, Robin Mathew Vadakkumcheril, who was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in February 2019 by the POCSO Court (Special Court under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012) at Thalassery in the communist-ruled state of Kerala, had filed appeal proceedings before the Kerala high court, which are now pending.
The case which saw the then Father Robin to conviction had already witnessed many manoeuvres by him before the judgement was pronounced.
The convict had then bandied his clout as the priest vicar, and as the manager of the school in which the girl had been studying, to the extent of trying to absolve himself of blame by getting the victim girl’s father to claim that he had raped and impregnated his own daughter.
This plan was foiled thanks to efforts of many, not least the public prosecutor, with evidence of the DNA test of the child born to the survivor. It was a good nine months after the conviction that news trickled in that the Pope had dismissed Robin from priesthood.
On further probing, it seems that the defrocking did not happen because of abuse of office, but at the request of Robin himself, who wanted to be relieved of the obligations of priesthood. These obligations include celibacy and he made the request because of his desire to marry the minor he had impregnated.
The question of marriage
Women’s groups and advocates and child rights activists in India generally converge on the point that marrying the survivor is a time tested ploy by rapists to escape conviction or the prolonged sentence. This tactic takes advantage of cultural issues around rape, where raped women are, to this day, looked upon as jinda lash – living dead.
The context of universality of marriage also cannot be missed. The family of the survivor feels that rather than have to face the ignominy of not getting their daughter married and the responsibility of a baby to shoulder, they may as well surrender their daughter to the rapist. A girl who is raped is still, in this age, considered ‘spoilt’ and therefore, given the premium on chastity, having significantly reduced marriage prospects.
Some countries still have legal provisions that legitimise a marriage to a rapist. India does not have such legal provisions.
The Supreme Court has, in fact, come down strongly on the issue stating that “religion, race, caste, economic or social status of the accused or victim or the long pendency of the criminal trial or offer of the rapist to marry the victim or the victim is married and settled in life cannot be construed as special factors for reducing the sentence prescribed by the statute. The power under the proviso should not be used indiscriminately in a routine, casual and cavalier manner for the reason that an exception clause requires strict interpretation”.
Yet such issues are usually decided by the courts before whom the matter is being tried. Often, the survivor is goaded and made to turn hostile in court, which eventually leads to the acquittal of the accused.
Where there is no agreement, activists sometimes adopt the pragmatic way out, by opting to look at the immediate ‘good’ of the survivor, who they feel is anyway between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The burden of society’s inability to rehabilitate the victim, it seems, has to be borne squarely by her and her family. Little thought is given to societal structures and cultural pillars that sustain such extortionist practices, and that do not enable a woman or a young girl to come out of the morass.
In the Robin case, the POCSO court had sought that the District Legal Services Authority, Kannur, pay adequate compensation to the child born to the victim for his or her rehabilitation and take appropriate measures for bringing up the child in a proper manner.
This seemed like a good proposition, considering that in such scenarios of vulnerability, parents can hardly be expected to take care of the child and prevent her from further abuse either through more rapes or marriage to the rapist. But for the legal services authority to shoulder such onerous responsibilities, its capacities need to be shored up orientation, personnel and finance-wise.
As a matter of fact, taking cognisance of concerns arising out of such moves by the rapist to marry the survivor, state legal services authorities can file a class action petition given what this means for human rights of women and children at large, specially if there is a pattern observed.
No doubt, there is the issue of agency and consent of the survivor. In the Robin case, the survivor has even stated in her deposition that she wishes to lead a family life with the accused and the child.
The question of the Church
While the woman’s consent and agency need to be respected, one needs to be cognisant of the fact that the consent or agency does not operate in a vacuum and also mindful that the woman is left with nothing but this ‘option’. The preamble of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) guidelines to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace, begins with acknowledging that the Catholic Church in India deeply cherishes the bond of sacred trust among the people of god, the clergy, religious and lay faithful.
Further in the section pertaining to ‘professional ethos’, the guidelines acknowledge that sexual abuse can also take place in the context of spiritual or psychological guidance or services. Hence, appropriate professional boundaries must be maintained between members of all sections of ministry or service at all time and in all places.
Therefore, in order to facilitate the woman to take a decision with real choices, a woman needs to have the support systems with her of family, of food security, of social protection, all of which are presently sadly lacking. State and institutional support systems are also woefully absent. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, and Regulations pertaining to schools and educational institutions, do stipulate provisions for compensation within the framework of redressal of grievances.
As per the CBCI Guidelines dealing with Sexual Harassment at the Workplace, the Diocese or Province is expected to ensure that medical, financial, spiritual and any other necessary help is provided to the victim to gain back control of their lives.
Similarly, in May, 2019, the Pope issued a motu proprio ‘Vos Estis Lux Mundi’, where the Pontiff clearly set out mechanisms that the Church must put in place at every level of the hierarchy and also stipulated that ecclesiastical authorities must offer victims together with their families, reception, listening, and support, also through specific services, spiritual assistance, medical, therapeutic and psychological assistance, after assessing the need for the same on a case by case basis.
But clearly there is yet more cultural introspection to be done on the subject.
Albertina Almeida is a Goa-based lawyer and human rights activist.