Missionaries of Charity nuns attend a special prayer to mark the death anniversary of Mother Teresa in Kolkata on Sept. 5, 2021. The way cases of sexual abuse of women, mostly nuns, are addressed by church leaders in India is in contravention of the law. (Photo: AFP)

Jan 17 2022

Hierarchy violates both Catholic Church and civil laws in its inaction to address cases involving priests

The sex abuse case of a priest, considered a benchmark one in the Indian Church, ended in the conviction and life imprisonment of the accused last month. However, it is deeply distressing that the sincerity of the Church’s leadership was not manifested in its handling.

The allegations against 55-year-old Father Lawrence Johnson attracted the national Church’s attention as it happened to be the first publicly reported case after the Indian Church put in effect a Vatican-approved procedure to deal with allegations of sex abuse by Catholic clergy.

The priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay (now Mumbai) was accused of sodomizing a 13-year-old boy inside his parish’s sacristy on Nov. 27, 2014, barely four weeks after the Church announced its methods to follow the Vatican procedure to check the malady.

Church observers considered it a benchmark case, also because it happened in Mumbai, one of the largest archdioceses in the country and one led by Cardinal Oswald Gracias, a member of Pope Francis’ kitchen cabinet of C7 cardinals.

The case assumed special significance as it happened in Mumbai Archdiocese, a leading archdiocese based in the financial capital of the country whose Catholic leaders are often seen as the face of the Indian Church.

In 2018, when Cardinal Gracias was elected president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, the case assumed particular importance. The entire Church waited to see how the leader of the Indian hierarchy would handle the case.

The synodal call of mutual listening is a joke when one considers the Church hierarchy’s stance to abused children and women

Meanwhile, the city police arrested the accused priest in December 2014 and a special court dealing with sexual offenses against children convicted him on Dec. 29, 2021. He was handed down life imprisonment.

Five years since the allegation, we are yet to hear about the suspension or dismissal of the accused from clerical order. Mumbai Archdiocese says the priest was banned from public ministry soon after the allegations surfaced. Archdiocesan officials would say they are following a canonical process to act against the convicted priest.

Another case that attracted international attention concluded on Jan. 14 when a court in southern India acquitted Bishop Franco Mullakal of Jalandhar of charges of rape, unnatural sex and harassment. This case too draws our attention to the hierarchy’s response to complaints.

The complainant nun over the years knocked on several doors including the Vatican, the nuncio, bishops, a cardinal, and the bishops’ conference seeking assistance but only received silence as a response. The synodal call of mutual listening is a joke when one considers the Church hierarchy’s stance to abused children and women.

The hierarchy’s handling of these cases was not different from such past cases in India. It raises questions about the sincerity of Indian Church leaders, who have promised “zero tolerance” of clerical sex abuse. The deplorable apathy comes despite leaders’ vocal determination to stamp out clergy abuse.

During an address at Dublin Castle on Aug. 18, 2018, Pope Francis said the Church’s failure to adequately address clerical sex abuse has “rightly given rise to outrage and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community.”

“I myself share those sentiments,” the pope said.

In 2019, Cardinal Gracias, as an organizer of the bishops’ meeting on “The Protection of Minors in the Church” at the Vatican, wanted the Church to “take an honest look at the issue.”

In his presentation on “Accountability in a Collegial and Synodal Church,” he said: “… the entire Church must take an honest look, undertake rigorous discernment, and then act decisively to prevent abuse from occurring in the future and to do whatever possible to foster healing for victims.”

He stressed the need to acknowledge “the fact of sexual abuse” and the “need to ask forgiveness” and “to commit resolutely” to take steps to ensure a Church that is free from the sexual abuse of minors.

Despite such powerful statements, it is shocking how the hierarchy handles abuse cases.

In the benchmark case, the victim’s boy’s parents claim they had approached Cardinal Gracias on the day of the abuse. He did not respond immediately by reporting it to the police and instead delegated one of his auxiliary bishops to follow up on the case as he was leaving for Rome.

The parents say the auxiliary bishop did not act immediately and the vulnerable, traumatized minor was denied any form of consolation or assistance from leaders of the Church. Church officials deny these allegations and claim otherwise. But the entire episode has been shocking and painful for the entire Catholic community.

Leaders are meant to transmit the healing touch of Christ to the wounded and suffering. Instead, church authorities reportedly extended support to the accused while the abused minor was subjected to a grueling interview, all alone, as if he was the guilty one.

It is of great concern how the Church in India addresses complaints of abuse against clergy, especially in the light of several cases of abuse of minors and vulnerable adults surfacing across the country in the secular and religious media.

The extent of abuse against religious women was highlighted in a study conducted by the Conference Religious of India’s Women Section. It was published in a book titled It’s High Time.

Its pattern of handling abuse highlights the Church’s failure to be a listening church, which is called to witness Christ, his words and his actions

The need for leaders of religious congregations and hierarchy to acknowledge and address these issues more transparently and with greater responsibility was underscored during the 16 days of activism against violence by Voices of Faith on their YouTube channel.

It is a series of testimonies by religious sisters speaking of the painful experiences and abuse they face in their congregations and by the clergy. The indifference of the Church’s leadership in naming the crime, failing to reach out to the victims, the lack of transparency, apparent irresponsibility and lack of accountability are painful.

The lack of action is shockingly excused Pontius Pilate style by casually stating that the case is sub judice and so one cannot intervene; this happens while openly shielding the abusers, allowing them to retain their position and titles, and shrouding the abuse in a veil of secrecy.

The hierarchy’s inadequate inaction trivializes and ignores the trauma of the victims, and more poignantly violates both civil and church laws. Its pattern of handling abuse highlights the Church’s failure to be a listening church, which is called to witness Christ, his words and his actions.

* Abusers across the country are reportedly transferred or given sabbaticals before being placed in new parishes on complaints being received.

* No public caution is issued when abusers are placed in new parishes to warn unsuspecting faithful, leaving them vulnerable and easy targets for future abuse. The exposing of the faithful to predators shows that the protection of the vulnerable is apparently not a priority.

* While a few cases are investigated by teams … their report is kept secret and sent to the Vatican for a decision, of which we are yet to hear the outcomes.

* False allegations are made that victims/survivors were denied some privilege by the accused and so resort to revenge by claiming abuse.

* Victims/survivors are not listened to but encouraged not to pursue the case to avoid adverse effects on themselves.

* Harassment of victims/survivors by the supporters of the clergy when they continue to pursue the case. They are ostracized in their communities, isolated, and struggle on their own with their limited resources to deal with their trauma and loss of dignity and justice.

It is shocking how the larger Catholic community fails to be sensitive to the pain of our children and religious nuns and other vulnerable women undergoing abuse

The pattern also involves contravening civil laws such as India’s Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act meant to protect minors from predators.

The law necessitates that on learning of a case of abuse, one has to report it to the police. It also stipulates that the minor has to be assisted to get justice in the civil courts. During the investigation, the minor has to always be accompanied by an adult in whose presence s/he is at ease and in a place where s/he feels comfortable.

In the Mumbai case, the hierarchy violated all three: it failed to report the case to the police, the victim was not assisted to get justice, and the victim was grilled alone by the investigation team for eight hours.

The Vatican’s May 2021 canonical revision broadened the definition of sexual abuse to explicitly acknowledge that not just children but also vulnerable adults can be victimized by priests and powerful laypeople who abuse their offices.

The way cases of abuse of women, mostly nuns, are addressed by church leaders in India is again in contravention of the Sexual Harassment at Workplace: Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal Act, 2013. The Indian law mandates that every institution have an Internal Complaints Committee(ICC) to investigate cases. Its composition is clearly stipulated in the law (50 percent women, presiding officer a woman, etc).

The Church’s leadership has failed to meet these requirements of the law. It is shocking how the larger Catholic community fails to be sensitive to the pain of our children and religious nuns and other vulnerable women undergoing abuse often under the pretext of “protecting the name of the Church.”

The ongoing Synodal Process 2021-23 is an opportunity to take seriously the call to mutual listening, sharing, support and accompaniment towards renewal so that we may truly witness Christ. The Church’s leadership has failed, and as a community so have we.

We must take up the challenge to renew the Church together, for we are accountable and responsible for the spread of God’s reign of justice, peace and love.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News. UCANews