Sexual abuse of women and children by spiritual gurus and swamis is not uncommon in India. Most involve long-term abuse of young women, which started when they were minors. It takes a long time for victims to speak up and press charges. However, when abuse of vulnerable children and women takes place within a well-respected and institutionalised religion such as the Roman Catholic Church, it becomes even more difficult to accept. Since we constantly read about churches getting burnt and priests being attacked, there is a constant anxiety that writing on this issue may be cited out of context for all the wrong reasons. Add to this my own religious affiliations, and the task becomes even more daunting. But the extreme vulnerability of the victims, and the attitude of the Church hierarchy of sweeping it under the carpet, compels me to write.
Within a strictly defined institutional religion, where the power is bestowed upon the priests and the clergy through a well-demarcated hierarchy, the abuse of vulnerable victims cannot be dismissed as the abuse by “self-styled godmen” as it is entrenched deep within institutional structures. Within the Roman Catholic Church, the priest is regarded as the representative of Jesus Christ and is held in high regard. The unbridled power, both spiritual and material, that priests have is almost unparalleled. The oath of celibacy, which a Catholic priest is mandated to abide by, makes the situation even more complex for the victim.
Usually the victims suffer from multiple levels of vulnerabilities, including poverty, physical ailments, family problems and even depression. Most are deeply entrenched in their religious beliefs and take the concerned priest as their spiritual guide. The gullible victims are lured either by projecting the spiritual benefits of the sexual act by God’s representative on earth will bestow upon them, or with a promise of material comforts and economic help. The pattern, by now, is very familiar.
It takes a long time for the victims to comprehend that what they have been subjected to is sexual abuse, and it is even more difficult for them to report. But worse, even when it is reported, it is usually swept under the carpet. The usual strategy is to keep the issue under wraps, transfer the concerned priest and “counsel” the victim into believing that it was all her fault and thus secure her silence. I have personally dealt with at least three such cases, where the victims had taken the courage to lodge complaints. The most recent case involves two sisters, who were orphans. After prolonged abuse, they dared to approach the bishop with their complaints. But the bishop, who met the victims along with their guardian, managed to convince them that the girls were partly responsible for the abuse, and it was best that they remain silent as pursuing the case further may mar their chances of marriage.
But as more such cases crawl out of the woodwork, it will embarrass the Church if stringent action is not taken in keeping with its policy of “zero tolerance”. This must include disrobing the errant priest of his ministerial duties and also lodging a police complaint as per the mandate of the criminal statute. If such strong signals are not sent out, the congregation will not get the message and will not know how to respond when such cases come to light. The sexual abuse by a Roman Catholic priest was recently in the news when Father Joseph Jeyapaul, who pleaded guilty to the charge of sexual abuse of a minor girl, was reinstated after the Vatican (Church of Rome) lifted his suspension.
After serving four years in a prison in Minnesota in the US, he was sent back to his original diocese of Ooty (Tamil Nadu) in 2015. The sexual abuse had occurred during his posting in the US between 2004 and 2005, after which he returned to India. He was extradited to face trial in the United States. When the 26-year-old victim learnt about this, she issued a statement that she was shocked and felt re-victimised by the Catholic Church. She vowed to do everything possible to expose him and to reach out to other survivors in her area. Subsequently, through her attorney, she filed a federal lawsuit in Minnesota against Bishop Amalraj, Bishop of Ooty, for reinstating Jeyapaul. She told reporters in Minnesota that his reinstatement would endanger kids in India.
The “zero tolerance policy” for abusive priests was formulated in the context of the number of cases of sexual abuse by priests that broke out in various cities of the US, particularly Boston. The Church spent billions of dollars to settle the claims by victims mainly to secure their silence. In Boston, Church properties had to be sold to meet these claims. While Pope John Paul II is blamed for not taking a firm stand on this issue, the subsequent Pope, Benedict XVI, not only offered a formal apology to victims but was also instrumental in bringing the “zero tolerance to sexual abuse” policy that has been subsequently adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in India. Pope Francis has taken several steps to take the initiative further.
However, this policy only addresses the issue of sexual abuse of children and does not include sexual abuse of women, which is far more prevalent in India. Several cases of abuse of vulnerable victims are now coming to light. A group of Christian women in Mumbai and Pune — after working laboriously for two to three years — drafted a policy. But unfortunately the same is still languishing for the past three years with the concerned officials at the office of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), the highest body with the power to approve it.
More recently, when approached, Cardinal Ozwald Gracias of the Archdiocese of Bombay has promised that the policy will be implemented at least within the Bombay Archdiocese. In 2013, the Government of India had enacted a statute dealing with sexual harassment of women at the workplace and also in educational institutions. This would also be applicable to Church. Hence, if the Church fails to act with a seriousness that the issue demands, it will be possible for the state authorities to insist on compliance of the state policy to prevent and redress sexual violence within its institutions. So here’s hoping that the Church will suo motu enforce the policy at the earliest.