In September 2018, five nuns from Kerala began a hunger strike to bring Franco Mulakkal – a powerful Catholic Bishop accused of rape – to justice. The protest sparked off a ‘Nuns Too’ movement and ended with the arrest of Bishop Franco. And ever since, there have been louder calls for better compliance from the Church to end sexual crimes by clergymen. Adding more traction to these demands, a Chennai-Goa based duo have now petitioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address sexual abuse, corruption and other crimes occurring within different denominations of the Christian faith in India. R Joseph Kennedy and Savio Rodrigues have kicked off a campaign named 'Hail Mary', to expose incidence of sexual crimes within the church and talk about the need for systemic change to end it.
"We want the government to initiate a dialogue amongst leaders of different Christian denominations in India to think of a solution. The idea is to think of a parish or church level body to empower victims of clergy abuse to disclose incidents. Maybe a committee comprising of members of the laity (believers) and government officials who will hear the complaints," Savio tells TNM.
“I have personally known victims who have either chosen to stay silent or have been forced into silence as they did not want to or could not wage a battle against such a powerful institution. I feel it’s necessary to change this and make it easier for victims to be able to report incidents,” Joseph Kennedy tells TNM.
The focus is to get the Church to stop internally investigating complaints of sexual crimes, which invariably leads to several cover ups, Savio adds. "The church should hand over all complaints of sexual abuse and other crimes to law enforcement agencies and government-led child protection agencies which will investigate them. This will bring in more accountability within the institution," he says.
Prior to the launch of 'Hail Mary', research from GoaChronicle and IndianExpose – both publications headed by Savio – mapped the crimes of the Christian clergy from 2014 based on four categories. The study revealed 109 cases of sexual assault, murder, fraud, and assault between 2014 and August 2019. According to the data collated by IndiaExpose and GoaChronicle, Kerala is the state with the highest number of reported cases of sexual abuse by clergymen - 21. Tamil Nadu ranks next with 18 cases of sexual abuse by clergymen reported in the state. In, Andhra Pradesh, 12 cases of sexual abuse in Church have been reported in the past 5 years. Telangana and Karnataka each have 2 cases of sexual abuse by clergymen which have been reported since 2014.
"We noticed that 58 of the mapped cases were child sexual abuse by clergymen, mostly involving girls between the ages of 11 and 15. Hence, we focused on women and child sexual abuse happening within the church in our petition," Savio states.
While the Vishakha guidelines and other workplace harassment laws apply to religious institutions as well, victims within their folds rarely receive justice from the institutions, and are forced to move legally, as seen in several cases of sexual abuse by powerful religious leaders.
"Even in Bishop Franco case, the survivor had tried to raise the issue within the Catholic Church for over a year. It even reached the Apostolic Nuncio and yet no action was taken. This is when she decided to expose the incident. We have to realise that the church is the workplace for these nuns. They receive salaries and hence all workplace laws in the country must apply to the church too. We need structural changes," says Savio.
World over, several countries such as the USA, Switzerland, France, Austria, Germany, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Jamaica, have taken note of the crimes of clergymen and put in place prevention and redressal mechanisms to instil confidence among victims. However, this is yet to happen in India, the petition notes.
"We hope the government will notice the petition and act on it. If not, we plan to take up this cause legally," Savio says.
Team 'Hail Mary' also plan to release an eponymous movie on the biggest cases of sexual crimes by the Christian clergy in India, which will see a world premiere in February 2020.