Exclusive: Finally, Kerala Catholic priests can be defrocked for sexual abuse of minors

Along the lines of POCSO and the workplace sexual harassment law, the guidelines speak of protecting minors and ‘vulnerable adults’ – however, there are some gaps.
Exclusive: Finally, Kerala Catholic priests can be defrocked for sexual abuse of minors
Exclusive: Finally, Kerala Catholic priests can be defrocked for sexual abuse of minors

The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council has published a set of guidelines for protection of minors and ‘vulnerable adults’ from sexual abuse and assault in the Church and Church controlled organisations. The document, accessed by TNM, has been drafted as per the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) guidelines on the same issue, which were reportedly formulated in October 2015. Titled KCBC Guidelines for Safe Environment Programme for Church Personnel Connected with Institutions where Minors or Vulnerable Adults are Given Particular Care, the guidelines provide for defrocking of priests (remove a person from priesthood) who are found guilty of sexual abuse, and are found to be a ‘threat to minors’.

The guidelines have come on the back of serious allegations of sexual abuse inside the Church – including the rape and impregnation of minors, and an allegation of rape against Bishop Franco Mulakkal of the Jalandhar diocese, by a nun from the Missionaries of Jesus.

The purposes of the guidelines, as per the document, include providing a secure and safe environment for minors and vulnerable adults in the faith communities within the KCBC’s dioceses and eparchies (church provinces); and to protect them from any form of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. The guidelines also talk about providing care and compassion to victims including counselling and other forms of support, and talks about the provisions in the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. While the guidelines do look at the issue comprehensively when it comes to minors, it does not address the sexual exploitation of women in the Church and Church controlled organisations.

Who the guidelines protect

The guidelines specify that they are meant for the protection of ‘minors’ and ‘vulnerable adults’ in Catholic presbyteries, churches, educational institutions, religious institutions, houses of special care and Catholic organisations. While a minor has been defined as a person below the age of 18 years, it also includes “...person who habitually lacks the use of reason.”

The definition of ‘vulnerable adult’ does not outright mention women in convents. A ‘vulnerable adult’ is defined as, “any adult who is physically, mentally or emotionally impaired, whether temporary or long-term, or is otherwise unable to function as a typical adult is expected to function.”

This means adult women without any physical or psycho-social disabilities are not including under the ambit of these guidelines.

Broad focus of guidelines

“Sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults are heinous crimes and grave sins,” the guidelines state, right at the very beginning, “This Guidelines are part of our endaevor to put in place a safe environment program in the catholic faith communities in Kerala.” (sic)

The guidelines also state that this is not just about internal action, but also about reporting to civil authorities, which is important to ensure that matters of sexual abuse are not hushed up inside institutions. The KCBC, in the document, has claimed commitment to zero tolerance to sexual assault or harassment of minors and vulnerable adults, and says it’s also committed to preventing the same. The commitment, as per the document, also extends to responding to victims of sexual offences with care and compassion.

It talks about the appointment of a ‘Safe Environment Director’ and a ‘Safe Environment Committee’, appointed by the Diocese/Eparchy/Bishop/Superios/Head of the Institution. The director and committee must conduct ‘Safe Environment Training’ for the clergy, staff and volunteers in the diocese.

‘Church Personnel’ – meaning clerics, lay employees, volunteers, men and women religious and seminarians – have been told to follow these rules:

  • No viewing sexually explicit material in the presence of minors and vulnerable adults.

  • No sexually offensive humour.

  • No pictures of minors while they are dressing or undressing.

  • No engaging in physical, mental, psychological, written or verbal harassment of staff, volunteers or parishioners, and no tolerance if such harassment is witnessed by others. Harassment here has been defined as per the workplace sexual harassment law – and includes quid pro quo sexual favours.

  • Boundaries – physical and emotional – while dealing with minors.

  • Minors, unless accompanied by parents or guardians, not allowed to stay in living quarters of priests.

  • No overnight trips with minors.

  • Church personnel bound to report cases of sexual offences to civil authorities and cooperate with investigations.

Punishment prescribed

While the process to decide whether someone is guilty of a sexual offence is long winded (to be explained further down in the article), the guidelines say that if the alleged offender is found guilty, “...and constitutes a risk for minors, the offender is to be immediately relieved of all offices he had been holding and it should be examined whether he needs to be advised to request to be reduced to the lay state; he had the option of asking the Holy Father to dispense him from all obligation connected with the clerical state, including celibacy; else a procedure may be initiated for his dismissal from the clerical state.”

“Reassignment to ministry or transfer to another diocese is excluded, if the cleric poses a risk to minors and to the community,” the guidelines further state.

Problem areas and gaps

However, while the guidelines seem to be comprehensive when it comes to minors, in the wake of the accusations of rape against Bishop Franco Mulakkal, not considering the vulnerability of nuns and other women in the church is a major gap. While there are rules against minors staying with Church Personnel including clergy, there is no mention of priests and bishops staying at convents; this is crucial as there have been several allegations of misconduct by priests while visiting convents.

Another major problem with the guidelines is that the Church hierarchy gets inordinate powers to decide whether or not someone is guilty. The Bishop, along with the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, can decide the guilt or innocence of an accused, and there is no transparency or checks and balances in this process. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith is the body that defends Catholic doctrines – so what is the guarantee that they will not try to protect a powerful person in the Church – one of their own – who is accused of a sexual offence?

Also, while the guidelines prescribe ‘Safe Environment Training’ for Church Personnel, there is no mention of training for children and vulnerable adults, to inform them of their rights and the procedures for redressal if they do face abuse.

While the Church has been facing criticism for abuse within that has gone ignored for too long, there are mentions in the document of ‘false accusations against clergy, employees and volunteers’ – giving space for the narrative that complainants are usually liars, and in fact discouraging victims from coming forward for fear of repercussions.

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