How the Church needs to change the way it addresses Sexual and Gender-based abuse

Written by Sabrangindia | Published on: July 21, 2018
Christian churches belonging to different denominations are facing a lot of heat in India, in light of the recent spate of cases of sexual exploitation and abuse of women, allegedly by members of the clergy. While concerned church authorities have cooperated with the police during investigations, in some instances, they have also faltered in their response to the issue at hand by either defending or shielding the accused or shaming the survivor.

Church and sexual violence

This is why there is a need for the Church to make public its standard operating procedures (SOPs) for investigating claims of sexual abuse as well as how it plans to stem the rot in the system that has become more and more evident in light of the following cases.

Case-1: The rape of the Kerala nun
The controversy surrounding the rape of a nun and its alleged cover up by Syro-Malabar Church refuses to die down. Instead of assuring the nun of an impartial and thorough inquiry into the matter and subsequent action against the accused, the church’s Cardinal has claimed during a police investigation that he received no complaint of rape from the nun. This, just days after the accused Bishop made counter allegations that the nun had filed a false complaint against him because he was investigating allegations that she was having an affair with her cousin’s husband!

Brief Background of the case
The nun had filed a police complaint saying that she was allegedly raped 13 times by Jallandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal over a period of two years (2014-2016), when she was at a convent in Kuravilangad, a small town near Kottayam in Kerala. The accused Bishop admits to have stayed in a room at a mission house at the convent on 13 occasions when he visited Kerala during that period.

The nun said that she had approached church authorities on multiple occasions, but her complaints fell on deaf ears, forcing her to approach the police. In fact, during police investigations, Joseph Kallarangatt who is Bishop of the Syro-Malabar diocese of Pala, told investigators that the nun had met him and told him about her ordeal.

Cardinal claims never received any rape complaint
Now, fingers are being pointed at Cardinal George Allencherry for knowing about the abuse but failing to act against it. However, the Cardinal has claimed that his office did not receive any complaint of rape! When a police team led by Vaikom Dy SP K Subhash questioned the Cardinal, he said he never received a rape complaint from the nun, though she did raise some concerns about some issues at her convent for which she was directed to approach the concerned congregation.

In fact, the official communique from the Church said, “It is unclear from media reports who is this nun. However, a nun working with Jalandhar diocese had met the cardinal and complained about some appointments and transfers in her congregation and the inconveniences she faced. Since her congregation belonged to Jalandhar diocese, which comes congregation belonged to Jalandhar diocese, which comes under the Latin hierarchy, she was advised to approach it as the cardinal had no jurisdiction.”

Accused priest engages in victim shaming
Meanwhile, Bishop Franco Mulakkal, the accused, has claimed in an interview to Times of India that his conscience is clear. In fact, in the same interview he launched a counter allegation against the nun claiming that she was getting back at him because he was investigating her for her alleged affair with the husband of one of her cousins. In 2016, the nun was posted with the Mission of Jesus Sisters in Jallandhar, where the accused is the Bishop of the diocese.

According to Sister Regina, Superior General of the mission, in November that year, the nun’s cousin had approached the church alleging that the nun was having an affair with her husband and she urged the church to step in to save her family. Sister Regina and a committee of four sisters pursued the investigation after getting the go ahead from Bishop Mulakkal. Interestingly, Bishop Mulakkal’s duties have neither been terminated nor has he been even suspended pending investigation.

Senior clergy and nuns write to CBCI and Vatican
Several senior priests and nuns have written to Cardinal Oswald Gracious, President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and Vatican Nuncio Giambattista Diquattro, demanding that that the accused Bishop be relieved of his duties. "Now that the case has gone to the courts, we urge you to please advise Pope Francis to relieve the bishop concerned of his pastoral responsibilities, so that the Church is seen to actually practice the 'zero tolerance' it professes to observe in abuse cases. With the accused bishop continuing to remain in his position, it will continue to erode the faith of the people in the credibility of the Church to implement its policy of zero tolerance and act justly in abuse matters," said the letter to the CBCI president.

“The accused bishop continuing to remain in his position will erode the faith of the people in the credibility of the Church to implement its policy of zero tolerance and act justly in abuse matters," said the letter to the Vatican Nuncio.

Case-2: Priest misuses Kerala woman’s ‘confession’, sexually exploits her with other priests
Recently a Kerala woman had accused five priests from the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in Kozencherry of sexually exploiting her. According to a statement the woman from Pathanamthitta made before the Crime Branch, Father Abraham Varghese of Mundyapally had had sexual relations with her after promising to marry her when she was just 16 years old.

She further alleged that when she had confided into a priest, Father Jais K. George of Anicaud, about this during confession, instead of counselling her Fr George himself proceeded to sexually exploit her by threatening to reveal her secret to her husband. This betrayal of a confessor's trust, that too by a priest who is expected to provide wise counsel and support, is shocking and despicable! Later Fr Job Mathew also allegedly joined in the exploitation. When she confided in yet another priest Father Johnson V Mathew, he too allegedly started sending her lewd and abusive messages!

The matter came to light when the woman’s husband discovered some discrepancies in transactions as per her bank statements and discovered hotel room rental bills. The woman then broke down and told him about her ordeal. The husband then called and spoke to a church official. An audio clip of this ended up on social media, exposing the entire story.

While the church assured to conduct an inquiry and take action against those found guilty, the husband alleged that he was being pressured to take back the complaint. Meanwhile two of the four priests are in custody, while the police are looking for the other two. The Crime Branch of the Kerala Police has slapped rape charges on all four. There is another, (fifth) as yet unnamed priest whose role is not clear so far.

Pope Francis and the new approach to cases of sexual abuse
The Catholic Church had been long reeling under multiple complaints of sexual exploitation where the alleged perpetrators were members of the clergy. After Pope Francis took over the reins of the Catholic Church in March 2013, he had made his stand clear on a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation. He had even met survivors of sexual abuse who had been earlier exploited by church officials and clergy, and apologised for the Church’s previous silence on the matter. However, subsequent scandals including the one in Chile following which the Pope’s off the cuff remark demanding proof appeared to suggest that he was accusing the survivor of slander, showcase the Church in poor light. The Pope later apologised.

Guidelines to deal with Sexual Abuse cases
In India, the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India (CBCI) came up with Guidelines for dealing with Sexual Harassment at the Workplace. Published in September 2017, the guidelines aim to provide a safe working environment for women in Church run facilities as well as suggest ways to deal with offenders. In a message from Cardianal Baselios Cleemis that is a part of the published guidelines, “The Catholic Church upholds the rights of personnel and others within working environments to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect in accordance with espoused values and the law. Any form or method of workplace harassment, bullying and discrimination is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

The foreword by Jacob Mar Barnabus OIC, Chairperson CBCI Council for Women says, “The Church, while wanting to ensure the protection and respect for women at workplace and without in any way underestimating the seriousness of sexual harassment of women at work place, wants to address all forms of sexual harassment at work place. In keeping this objective, ‘CBCI Guidelines to Deal with Sexual Harassment at Workplace’ is gender inclusive and has been formulated to create a safe, healthy and loving environment that enables its employees (irrespective of the gender) to work without the fear of prejudice, bias and sexual harassment and creates a mechanism for prevention of any form of harassment.” This showcases the Church’s progressive stand on sexual harassment that recognises that people of all genders can face sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment.

According to the guidelines, every diocese that employs 10 or more people is required to form an internal complaints committee. There are guidelines about how the committee should be composed, procedures for registering complaints, methods of investigation, and how to report matters to higher authorities. After hearing both parties and conducting an investigation, the committee is required to file a report within three months and the Church must act on the report within 90 days.

However, the awareness about the guidelines is limited. If this were to change, perhaps the certainty of an investigation and subsequent punishment would prevent potential perpetrators from engaging in any form of gender based discrimination, harassment or violence in the Church.