22nd March, 2017.
Baselios Cardinal Cleemis,
President, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), Major Archbishop of Trivandrum,
Archbishop’s House, Pattom, Trivandrum – 695 004. Kerala.
Subject: Concern about sexual abuse in the Church
Dear Cardinal Cleemis,
We, the members of the Indian Women Theologians Forum (IWTF), Satyashodhak, Streevani, Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace (FORUM), Conference of Religious India (CRI) Women’s Section, and other individuals who are deeply concerned about the integrity and mission of the Indian Church write in the context of the recent scandal involving the parish priest in Kerala who sexually abused a minor girl leading to her pregnancy.
1. Need to recognise issues specific to the ecclesial context
The episode highlights an issue that is unique to the ecclesial context, one which women have been struggling to bring to the attention of the bishops for the past 4 years, namely, that the violation of the fiduciary trust inherent in the priest-parishioner relationship has an additional dimension of damage, because we are taught to believe that the priest is ‘another Christ’. When such a man is a sexual offender, faith in the God he represents is shaken to the core. To the physical, mental and psychology trauma is added spiritual trauma. Not just the victim, but the entire family, the faith community and all those involved in the fight for justice are affected, and all need spiritual healing.
2. Need to respect and comply with State laws
Thankfully the State has laws that recognise sexual abuse for what it is, a crime that must be penalised. Similarly, the law regarding the abuse of minors is very clear, and shielding an abuser is now also punishable by the law. Unfortunately in the present instance the Church seems to have failed on both these counts. It took an outside agency to blow the whistle on the crimes that had occurred.
One of the purported reasons why the Church is reluctant to expose its criminal priests is the fear that such admissions will be exploited politically by vested interests. It is our contention that when the clandestine management of these cases comes to light it does far more harm, for delayed corrective action festers the wound. If on the other hand the laws of the land are followed it will give the signal that the Church leadership is composed of law abiding citizens, and that the Church as an institution supports justice for the victim.
3. Need for structures to address sexual abuse when it occurs in the Church
The current case will be tried in a court of law, and sadly by the media, but we all know that it is not the first case and will not be the last. To prevent repeat bungling and criminal activity, not to speak of untold damage to the reputation of the Church and the faith of its people, what we need urgently are structures in each diocese to handle these cases as soon as they occur. The government has already laid down the law for forming Internal Committees in the workplace, to receive and deal with cases of sexual harassment of women in organizations that have more than 10 employees. These committees are required to have women as chairpersons and at least 50% women members including a woman from outside the organization, working with women’s issues. The names of the Committee members as well as the objectives of the Committee are required to be displayed prominently in the organization so that employees are aware of whom they can approach. This also facilitates accountability of the employer. The CBCI could insist on forming similar committees in every diocese with the mandate to conduct enquiries when sexual abuse happens, and the authority to make and implement recommendations.
4. Need for a Policy to prohibit, prevent and redress sexual abuse in the Church What we also need urgently is a CBCI Policy to prohibit, prevent and address sexual abuse in the Church. A few of the women among the undersigned have been working with the CBCI Council for Women to bring out such a Policy for the past few years. It has met with many delays. We understand from Bishop Jacob mar Barnabas, the Chair of the Council, however, that the CBCI Standing Committee last year approved a Policy, and we are awaiting its release. It is our hope that such a Policy will not only demonstrate the bishops’ concern for vulnerable victims of abuse, but also restore the bishops credibility with regard to the zero tolerance of sexual violence to women that they have promised in their Gender Policy.
5. Need for greater attention to the choice of candidates for the priesthood and seminary formation
Since the instances of sexual abuse by clergy are being increasingly reported in the Indian Church, we think that greater care needs to be taken when choosing candidates for the priesthood and more attention given to seminary training and on-going clerical formation on questions relating to sexuality and celibate commitment. More importantly however, there must be conscientization with regard to patriarchal attitudes that promote condescension and even aggression towards those considered “inferior”, and clericalism that is perceived to place the ordained outside civil law, and permits lack of accountability and transparency. At its root, sexual abuse is ultimately not about sexuality or celibacy, but about the gross misuse of the disproportionate power assigned to priests. The improper handling of the case of a seminarian caught in voyeurism in 2014, a case that was much discussed within church circles and was finally given an ethnic colour by the local authority in an attempt to protect the accused, points to the need for urgent measures to be taken in this regard.
6. Need to address issues pertaining to clergy-woman religious relationships
The Kottiyoor incident draws attention to another disturbing issue in the Church. We are deeply concerned that some women religious have been charge sheeted under POCSO for allegedly covering up the crime to protect the offending priest. It is a pointer to the many unresolved issues concerning the clergy-women religious relationship in the Indian Church, which need to be addressed and resolved in ways that safeguard the integrity and wellbeing of the Church.
We are happy to note that Pope Francis has taken serious cognisance of sexual abuse by clergy and repeatedly condemned it. Two years ago while speaking at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia to a gathering of hundreds of bishops from around the world, he pledged that “Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children.” In June 2016 he laid out legal procedures to include negligence or omission in handling abuse allegations as one of the “grave reasons” that canon law allows for dismissal of a bishop.1 Once again, in a strongly worded letter to Bishops on 28 December. 2016, he exhorts them to renew their commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place. In his words: ‘Let us find the courage needed to take all necessary measures and to protect in every way the lives of our children, so that such crimes may never be repeated. In this area, let us adhere, clearly and faithfully, to “zero tolerance.”’2
Our letter is written in the same spirit, to express concern for hurting victims of sexual abuse in the Church, and to suggest measures to prevent such abuse, and when it does occur, to address it in accordance with existing laws and with sensitivity to victims, so that our Church remains a visible sign of justice, compassion and healing.
We remain sincerely in Christ, who stands as a Champion of abused and exploited women, and St. Joseph, whose feast we celebrated this month, who protected his young wife from the violence of patriarchal power.
• Dr. Astrid Lobo Gajiwala (Mumbai) – Co-ordinator, Indian Women Theologians Forum (IWTF) & Satyashodhak, firstname.lastname@example.org
• Advocate Julie George (Pune) – Director, Streevani, email@example.com
• Jacob Peenikaparambil CMI (Indore) National Convener, Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace (FORUM) – firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
• Manju Kulapuram SCSC (Hyderabad) National Secretary, Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace (FORUM) – firstname.lastname@example.org,
• Rita Pinto RSCJ, Vice President, National CRI, & President, Women’s Section,
National CRI – email@example.com
1 www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/francis-gives-vatican-authority-initiate-removal- bishops-negligent-sexual-abuse
2 Letter of the Holy Father to Bishops on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, 28 December, 2016.
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79. Noella de Souza MCJ (Mumbai) – firstname.lastname@example.org
80. Olga Netto (Mumbai) – email@example.com
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82. Philip Manthara SJ (Patna) – mobile: 9430510537
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84. Philomena D’Souza FMA (Mumbai) – firstname.lastname@example.org
85. Poonam CJ (Bxur) – email@example.com
86. Prabha SND (Bihar) – Prabhasnd@gmail.com
87. Prashant Olalekar SJ (Mumbai) – firstname.lastname@example.org
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89. Ramila DHM (Bareilly) – firstname.lastname@example.org
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102. Shanti Picardo FC (Siliguri) – email@example.com
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115. Urmila ICM (Patna) – firstname.lastname@example.org
116. Valsa MMS (Teni) – email@example.com
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118. Prof. Varghese Manimala Ofm Cap (Kottayam) firstname.lastname@example.org
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120. Veena SHM (Bhadohi) – firstname.lastname@example.org
121. Veena Jacob RA (Patna) – email@example.com
122. Virginia Saldanha (Mumbai) Former Secretary, CBCI Women’s Commission & FABC Laity Commission – firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Giambattista Diquattro, Apostolic Nuncio to India.
2. Oswald Cardinal Gracias, President, Conference of Catholic Bishops of India
3. George Cardinal Alencherry, Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly.
4. Telesphore Cardinal P. Toppo, Archbishop of Ranchi.
5. Bishop Andrews Thazhath, CBCI Vice-President-I.
6. Bishop Filipe Neri Ferrao, CBCI Vice-President-II.
7. Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, CBCI Secretary General.
8. Bishop George Antonysamy, CCBI Vice President.
9. Bishop Anil Joseph Thomas Couto, CCBI Secretary General.
10. Bishop Jacob mar Barnabas, Chairperson, CBCI Council for Women.
11. Talisha Nadukudiyil SD, Secretary, CBCI Council for Women