In the past few weeks, three cases alleging sexual exploitation by church priests rocked Kerala, revealing the dark side of the religious institution. In the case which cropped up first, four priests of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church are facing charges of blackmailing and sexually abusing a woman. In the second case, a nun has accused a Catholic church bishop of sexually abusing her multiple times at a small town near Kottayam in 2014. The third one " also on an act of sexual assault in 2014 " was filed by a 39-year-old against another priest of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in Alappuzha district.
The case against four priests
Initially, five priests were said to be involved in the sex-for-silence case. The survivor's husband had alleged that one of the priests had sexually abused the woman before her marriage and continued making advances after she got married. When she revealed this to another priest, he too started sexually abusing her by using her confession against her. He further passed the information to three other priests, who too sexually abused her.
Though the husband of the survivor had claimed that he had informed the church about the matter on 7 May, action was only taken by the church authorities in late June when an audio conversation between the husband and another person began circulating on social media. The Kerala government ordered a crime branch probe, and the alleged crime was registered on 2 July. The name of the fifth clergyman was not included in the FIR for want of substantial evidence.
On 11 July, the Kerala High Court rejected the anticipatory bail petitions of three of the priests " Abraham Varghese alias Sony, Job Mathew and Jaise K George, as it observed that they acted as "predators" and took "undue advantage" of her.
"They (the clergymen) were in a position of dominance over the victim and by exploiting the said status, they are alleged to have sexually abused her. The victim in her statement emphatically asserted that the consent was not unequivocal or voluntary," Justice Vijayaraghavan said.
In their bail applications, the priests had rejected the woman's allegations and claimed the case was registered against them solely "under political pressure exerted by certain vested interests to derive political mileage".
On Thursday, Mathew surrendered before the Crime Branch.
The case filed by nun against a Catholic bishop
In her complaint to Kottayam police chief, a nun charged the Bishop Franco Mulakkal of the Jalandhar diocese of Roman Catholic Church with rape and unnatural sex on multiple occasion at a small town near Kottayam in Kerala between 2014 and 2016.
According to her complaint, she was abused on 13 different occasions " the first time was in 2014 at a guest house near an orphanage in Kuravilangad region. Quoting the police, PTI reported that the nun only approached the police after the church failed to act in her favour.
Mulakkal filed a counter petition, alleging that the nun's relatives threatened to kill him after he ordered a probe against her on the basis of an someone else's complaint in a different matter.
An investigation was launched in view of both the complaints.
On 10 June, the police said that the investigators had written to the immigration department to prevent any bid by him to leave the country, since he is known to have international connections.
The probe team, which went through the statements given to it and a magistrate by the nun, feels that there was "merit" in the nuns complaint to interrogate the bishop, police said.
Meanwhile, sources close to the nun told PTI that the nun had written to Pope Francis on 14 May alleging that she was "sexually abused and harassed" by the bishop, the sources said.
The case against another Malankara Church priest
While Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church was already reeling under charges of sexual abuse against the four of its clergymen, a 39-year-old woman filed a rape case against priest Binu George, serving under the diocese at Koypallikaranma.
The priest allegedly abused her four years ago when she met him over to discuss a family matter.
According to The Indian Express, the woman said in her complaint that the priest was transferred to another parish when the issue was taken up with the church authorities. However, he continued to send lewd messages to her, which made her approach the police. "What the Church could do then was only transfer the priest. Now, we may take harsher decisions, including defrocking, since he is facing a criminal case," Malankara Church priest trustee MO John was quoted as saying in the report.
Kerala churches and cases of sexual assault
A 2012 biographical sketch titled Nanma Niranjavare Swasthi, Sister Mary " who left her Catholic congregation in Kerala 13 years ago in disgust after 40 years of nunhood " had highlighted the abusive practices among some of the nuns and priests, according to this Firstpost article. Two biographical accounts by Jesme Raphael, and KP Shibu Kalaparambil had also made explosive revelations including sexual exploitation of women and men in the Church.
According to NDTV, at least 12 priests have been arrested in the last 18 months in different cases related to sexual abuse. In 2017, a 48-year-old Catholic Church priest was arrested on charges of raping a minor girl and impregnating her. The father of the victim had claimed that he earlier falsely admitted to raping his own daughter in order to "protect the priest and the Church".
With inputs from PTI