INDIA: Sexual violence and religious responsibility

On February 27th, a Christian priest in Kerala, Mr. Robin Vadakkancherry, was arrested on charges of raping a minor-girl. The incident came to light when the Childline (1098), the crisis helpline for children in distress in India was informed of the rape. The survivor got pregnant and last month, she gave birth in a Church-run hospital in Kerala. It has been reported that hospital staff and the nuns working at the institution tried to cover up the crime and shield the priest. It has also been reported that the accused and the Church tried to conceal details of the newborn from the authorities. The cover-up by Church authorities is apparent as the police have booked 8 people, including 5 nuns and the doctor, of the hospital where the survivor gave birth.

This is not the first time that the Church has been in the centre of a storm of sexual abuse and cover-up allegations. In 2015, another priest, Mr. Edwin Figarez, was accused of raping a teenaged girl and the priest was suspended by the diocese. In December, 2016, in a welcome development, Figarez became the first Catholic priest in Kerala to be sentenced under the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, 2012. He was given a concurrent term of double life imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of Rs.2.15 lakh by a special court in Kerala. In this case, the justice mechanisms swung into action and the quick conviction and sentencing of the priest, along with the sentencing of his brother as well as the government doctor who had tried to cover up the crime, came as a breath of fresh air.

In the past and in the present case, the role of the Church in doing too little and covering up cases of sexual abuse by its members have come under scrutiny. On March 1, a survivor of child sexual abuse by a member of the clergy resignedfrom a special Vatican Commission, Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, that was created by Pope Francis after citing concerns that:

“The reluctance of some in the Vatican Curia to implement recommendations or cooperate with the work of a commission when the purpose is to improve the safety of children and vulnerable adults around the world is unacceptable.

Is this reluctance driven by internal politics, fear of change, clericalism which instills a belief that ‘they know best’ or a closed mindset which sees abuse as an inconvenience or a clinging to old institutional attitudes?

I do not know the answer but it is devastating in 2017 to see that these men still can put other concerns before the safety of children and vulnerable adults.”

Yes, in India too, it is devastating that an institution that is mean to stand for what is right and protect the interests of the abused, have acted with so little integrity and purpose. Given the message the Vatican is sending, it is perhaps not surprising that in the present case, this particular church in Kannur, Kerala has tried to cover up this case of child sexual abuse as well.

The aftershocks of this case are still being felt – a video of a pastor in Kerala speaking about how women who dress in Western attire and have unruly hair come to attend services do not have the Catholic Church’s permission to wear the clothing of men – and those who do, must be drowned in the sea. The video is a classic example of how a woman is blamed for inciting lust in a man due to the clothing she wears, how she has ‘sinned’. This video is shocking as is the blame game published in Sunday Shalom, a magazine supported by the Catholic Church which reportedly stated that the survivor was also at fault as she did not ‘stop or correct’ the priest who has a ‘human body’ with ‘temptations’.

Such a blame game unfortunately is not new in India. The Union Cabinet Minister for Women & Child Development, Ms. Maneka Gandhi speaking to the media yesterday advocated for ‘curfew in college hostels to prevent girls from being out after 6pm’ asserting that “… as a parent who’s sending a daughter to a college – or a son – I would expect her and him to be protected. And perhaps one of the protections is against themselves. When you are 16 or 17 you are also hormonally very challenged. So to protect you from your own hormonal outbursts, perhaps a lakshman rekha (restrictive line) is drawn. It really is for your own safety.”

The Asian Human Rights Commission urges the authorities to probe this case quickly and ensure the guilty are sentenced. It is also imperative that the Church as well as the State looks within itself and cleans up the rot in its system, and nips in the bud, the absurdities uttered by its representatives. Instead of blaming survivors and preventing sexual violence in the future, the narrative unfortunately is dangerously focussed on bypassing of responsibility and continuously sexualising women’s bodies, blaming them for the sexual assault.