Sexual misdemeanors by the clergy in Kerala are nothing new. But for the first time, the Church has paid `12 lakh to a former nun who was sexually abused.
By TK Devasia
Pope Francis defrocked several abusive clergymen since he assumed papacy in March 2013, but his followers in Kerala have made a nun, who complained of sexual abuse by a priest, give up her robes. And though the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, to which Anitha belonged, claims that she hadn’t complained, strangely, the Church has granted her a living allowance of `12 lakh, a gesture it has not shown towards any nun in recent history.
At a press conference in Kochi, this ex-nun had described the sexual advances of a priest while she worked as a teacher in Pachore, Madhya Pradesh, in 2011 and her subsequent ordeals. But this was before the settlement took place. But now she is silent and repeated attempts by this correspondent to talk to her failed.
The events following the complaint showed that the Church did not take kindly to her attempts to put the priest in the dock. The St Agatha congregation, to which Anitha belonged, turned hostile towards her after she spoke up, and when she persisted with her charge, it transferred her to Italy.
Conditions in Italy too were none not friendly. Anitha claimed that she was made to work at the Mother House as a slave and had to go without food on many occasions. When she complained, she was thrown out and asked to leave Italy.
The same fate awaited her when she returned to her parent convent at Aluva in February this year. The convent authorities refused to take her in and threw out her luggage. The local people took her to an orphanage there.
PORTRAIT OF COURAGE
However, Anitha was not prepared to give up her robes. She wanted a valid reason for her expulsion or compensation for the service she had rendered to the Church for 14 years. The congregation rejected both demands, but the Ernakulam diocese intervened when she threatened to launch an indefinite hunger strike before the convent and accepted her second demand.
The Church, however, has described the financial assistance to Anitha as an act of benevolence on the part of the congregation. Father Paul Thelekkat, spokesperson of the Syro Malabar Church, dismissed questions about sexual abuse as a figment of her imagination. “I did not hear the nun complaining of sexual harassment when I met her. She had only two demands, one of which was to return to the congregation. The second was to get a sum of money for her future living. We have accepted the second demand,” he told India Legal.
“Anitha could not fit into the community. The settlement was done on a personal basis, for which there are reasons. It was the generosity of the congregation, which wanted her to settle in life after so many years in the convent,” he added.
TRAIL OF MISDEEDS
Another nun, who had walked out of her congregation in 2008 alleging sexual harassment, calls the settlement a bribe to seal the mouth of this ex-nun. Sister Jesme, who rattled the Church by describing tales of sleaze in the Church in Amen, a book published in 2009, says the money was intended to ensure that Anitha did not speak out any more.
Having suffered enough damage from the autobiography of Jesme and the memoirs of other former priests and nuns, the Church apparently did not want to create another martyr. All these books speak about the clergy indulging in sex and their cover-up.
While Jesme’s book talks about the harassment she suffered for resisting sexual advances, homosexuality and corruption within convents, Nanma Niranjavale Swasthi (Peace to the One filled with Grace), an autobiography of Sister Marty Chandy, another former nun, speaks about nuns who got pregnant by priests and aborted fetuses and other scandalizing stories.
Even worse was Oru Vaidikante Hru-dayamitha (Here is the Heart of a Priest), a memoir by Father Shibu Kalamparambil, who quit his Vincentian order after 14 years due to frustration. His book alleges that priests and nuns had converted convents and nunneries into brothels.
He has now joined a movement against ill practices in the Church called the Kerala Catholic Church Reform Movement (KCRM). He says a number of priests and nuns had been caught red-handed but the Church had hushed up the matter.
Reji Njallani, national convenor of KCRM, says sexual misdemeanors by the clergy is a serious threat to the church in Kerala and wants the Vatican to review celibacy law. He says that KCRM has already submitted a representation in this regard to Pope Francis.
However, noted writer Paul Zachariah laughs at the suggestion. “This will never happen. Many of today’s priests don’t want to marry. When they can get sex easily within the confines of the Church, why bother to maintain a wife and bring up children? You don’t need to open a tea shop to drink tea,” he says. Also, the Catholic Church, unlike other Christian denominations, does not allow its clergy to marry.
The writer says this was one of the reasons why the church in Kerala never faced any problem in filling seminaries and nunneries. Earlier, youngsters from poor families would come forward to join the religious order. Now, young boys and girls from well-to-do families are also joining in large numbers. Part of the reason for this interest is the increasing opportunity of going abroad following the migration of many Christians in Kerala to other parts of the world and the acute shortage of priests in many countries, especially Europe, says Zachariah.
Sex and corruption scandals do not bother the Catholic Church much as it has the money and muscle power to cover them up.
Priests and nuns currently constitute one of the largest migrations from Kerala, where 40 lakh educated youth languish without jobs. The number of clergy leaving Kerala, either for other states or to go abroad, is now estimated to be around 1.35 lakh. Of the total percentage of Catholic priests and nuns in the world, Malayalees constitute 15 percent.
Zachariah reveals that the sex and corruption scandals are not bothering the Catholic Church much as it has the money and muscle power to cover them up. The political clout wielded by this Church deters the government from acting against it.
The two-decade-old Sister Abhaya case is a glaring example. The Kerala police had sought to bury the case as a suicide, but the CBI, which took over the investigation, subsequently found that the 22-year-old nun was murdered allegedly by two priests and a nun after she witnessed their sexual acts in the convent where she lived.
Similarly, the police did not care to conduct a proper investigation into the suicide of 23-year-old Sister Anoopa Mary even after recovering a note from her room stating that she was unable to withstand sexual harassment from senior nuns. She was found hanging in her room at Saint Mary’s Convent in Kollam in 2008. Several other cases of sexual abuse, murder and suicide within the Church have not seen the light of day.
Njallani says KCRM is aware that the living allowance granted to Sister Anitha is part of a cover-up operation. The Church has insulted the ex-nun by describing the compensation as charity. After serving the Church for 14 years, she had a right for a severance package, he says.
He says KCRM still accepted the settlement hoping that it would pave the way for a better life for thousands of ex-priests and nuns languishing on the sidelines of mainstream society. He says that the association of ex-priests and ex-nuns floated by the organization recently is gearing up for a long struggle in this regard.
However, the Church has made it clear that the allowance granted to Anitha is not going to set a precedent for anyone else in future.
Father Joseph Chinnayyan, former deputy secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, says it is not right on the part of ex-priests and ex-nuns to demand compensation as they had joined the Church with a commitment to serve God. There cannot be any fee for this service, he stresses.
He says that the system under which the Church works cannot be compared with trade union laws. The issue would be add-ressed as per Canon Law, which has provisions to deal with it in a “humane and benevolent” manner, he adds.
“When the priests can get sex easily within the confines of the church, why bother to maintain a wife? You don’t need to open a tea shop to drink tea.” —Paul Zachariah, writer
Njallani wonders how the Church could describe the service being rendered by priests and nuns as free service to God when the Church is charging market fees for the service it provides. Self-financing colleges under the Church are, after all, taking hefty amounts as donation and tuition fee, he says.
“If the Church is not ready to give fair compensation to ex-nuns and ex-priests, they will be forced to move the courts. Churches in western countries are already paying billions as compensation to abuse victims. It will be in the interest of the Church here if it does not force the victims to go to the court,” he adds.
Talk about courting trouble.