"I don't know what you'll do madam. Give me some compensation or else I'll take sleeping pills and commit suicide. I'm not able to live. I just want my daughter back madam, please," a woman pleaded, as she hit her own head and fell at another woman's feet.
This was the scene that played out at Jagannadhapuram village in Tadepalligudem mandal of West Godavari district on Wednesday.
The village was paid a visit by AP Women’s Commission chairperson Nannapaneni Rajakumari after a local media channel aired allegations that a pastor had sexually assaulted many women in the area.
The pastor in question was Didde Ebenezer, said to be around 40-years old. An investigation into the priest has uncovered some dark stories, including allegations that he had kept around 20 women in captivity.
Alleged sexual abuse
According to the locals, the pastor claimed that he could speak to God, and would invite women who wanted to speak to him, to visit his residence at night. He would only make the 'offer' only to women, and set one condition.
The women had to 'serve' him, as he claimed to be the son of God. The 'service', according to locals included alleged body massages and nude prayers in candlelight.
People in the area told police that he was powerful and conniving enough to convince the women and isolate them from their families.
"He would start by asking us to do simple things like giving him a massage, hand feeding him, and then move his way up to more unspeakable actions. He would say that we had to disrobe if we wanted 'pure' things to happen to us. He would say that we have to follow whatever he says, or else something evil would befall us, no matter how disgusting his demand is," a victim told TV9 Telugu, the media channel, which first broke the story.
"One day after the entire family went to attend prayers, he asked me to stay back to speak to me. He then began moving close to me and touching me inappropriately. I told him that I had children, and I could not do the things he asked me to, and ran away," she added.
Another local alleged that he was giving them some kind of an addictive 'drug' or 'medicine', which does not let them leave his premises.
Speaking to TNM, SI Srinivas from the Tadepalligudem rural police station said, "He had come many years ago and set up the church, and slowly gained the trust of the locals over time. He would hold special prayers on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. Over time, he began asking women to visit him in the night."
"According to locals, he claimed that the prayers he conducted at night had more 'healing' power, and were more powerful. In 2015, during one such prayer, he allegedly misbehaved and molested a woman devotee, following which she complained to us," he added.
"A police case was registered in 2015 itself, and Ebenezer managed to secure bail. He stayed for a bit in Jagannadhapuram village, before he moved out to Madduru village in Kovvur mandal of West Godavari district," the policeman said.
After the pastor was exposed, when police visited the premises of his church, they found pornographic books and condom packets.
"He stayed low, and opened a church there. We received no allegations from that area, and he regularly attended court until the judgement was given on August 21, 2017, when the court acquitted him," he added.
While the police said that the witness' statement was not strong enough, locals allege that the pastor had pulled strings to influence the verdict.
Following this, the locals were outraged, and seem to have contacted TV9, which carried a story.
The AP Women’s Commission took note of the incident and visited the village, where several victims came forward to narrate heart-breaking tales of sexual assault.
"We will immediately take him into custody, and free the women who are allegedly under confinement. We all had tears in our eyes when we heard the victims speak. This is not a normal incident. He has played with people's life in a holy place like a church. We will prosecute him," AP Women’s Commission chairperson Nannapaneni Rajakumari told locals after the public meeting.
"No case has been registered so far because no person has filed a complaint. However, the Commission has ordered for a case to be filed against him, and a detailed report to be submitted. We will do the same, once we receive orders from our seniors," SI Srinivas said.
"We tried to track the pastor down, but Ebenezer is presently absconding," he added.
Two victims rescued
"With the help the District Superintendent, we rescued three women from his premises. We suspect that the pastor may have some mental disorder as we are not able to understand his mindset. When we searched his room, we saw many peculiar and unexplainable things, which one would not expect to find in a pastor's home," Commission Member Rajyalakshmi said.
However, she did not elaborate further.
"We counselled the women in the presence of the parents and police. We explained to them that they need not live with the pastor like that, and they were free to return to their parents. We counselled the parents as well. While two women went back to their parents, the other women went back to the church," she added.
Since the woman was a major, and it was her own decision, the Commission could not legally do anything about it.
"Additionally, when we rescued the women, they seemed like they were in a trance and were receiving orders. It took many hours to counsel them and get them also to talk properly," Rajyalakshmi claimed.
"There are still some women who are staying with him. We will try to get them also out with the help of the police, and present the pastor in front of the media. We are taking up the case suo moto," she added.
Pastor’s wife says went through ‘hell’ when she lived with him
Meanwhile, the pastor’s wife, Sivan, also visited the spot when the Commission visited the village, and said that she also underwent ‘hell’ when she lived with him.
Though she separated from him two years ago, she said that he used to lock her up and beat her. When her brother called, the pastor would doubt her fidelity.
"After I protested, he made me cry a lot, and then kicked me out of the house. I even have a 3-year-old child now and I’m supporting her on my own,” she said.
“He used to lock the room under the guise of ‘Bible class’, and used to mix something in their water. He would hypnotise them and say that they would do whatever he asked them to do,” she alleged.
She also claimed that Ebenezer was threatening her after she decided to go public with her complaint.