Not all is well in the sanctum sanctorum of some of India’s Churches as stories of violence and sexual abuse, fear, deaths, denial of burial rights, suicides and cover-ups start to trickle out slowly but surely. The whistle-blowers in many cases are from within. On July 23, 2013 a 17-year-old from Tamil Nadu who was found dead at the home of a Kerala priest. The grieving mother took the Catholic Church head on resulting in the arrest of five priests including a Bishop. Read here.
The Church preaches charity, kindness and compassion towards everyone but Sr. Mary Sebastian, a 45 year-old nun was afraid the very institution that she has served for a quarter century could turn on her. Reason?
In January this year she decided to quit the Church because of daily harassment by her superiors at the Syro-Malabar Church’s Cherthungal Nasrathubhavan Convent in Pala, Kottayam in Kerala. When she rebelled, she was harassed further, threatened and as she appealed to the appropriate organisations, her rightful pension was denied. Worse, she found herself being accused of harassing children.
“I am scared for my life…they are so powerful that they may even harm me, she had told The News Minute over the telephone. Read here.
Cut to the Coimbatore (Tamil-Nadu) tragedy where Arun Janardhanan of the Indian Express details the heart-breaking and bone-chilling details of an adolescent girl whose faith in the Church, her belief in her preacher who eventually became her tormentor led to her death. In 2013, Fathima Sophia, Shanthi Roselin’s daughter was found dead in the guest room of Father Arockiaraj, the priest of the St. Stanislaus Church in Walayar (Palakkad), a district that shares a border with neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
The story is the same. Priest wins over young girl’s confidence. Assigns chores. Takes her on rounds of hospitals. Ensures she gets good medical attention for ailments. Wins over the family’s trust. Comes over to the girl’s house. Invites the girl over to the guesthouse. Establishes a pattern of comfort and trust underpinned by faith and religion. How do you question god, the abused ask in the Oscar-award winning film Spotlight. Everybody knows everybody keeps quiet for fear of retribution.
Fathima’s mother echoes similar sentiments. “Avar engalin kadavulaaka irunthaar (He was our God).” The police registered a case of suicide and the matter was swiftly closed. Then followed an alleged confession from Father Arockiaraj apparently to the victim’s mother, a tell-tale “letter” about a relationship, secret canonical hearings that resulted in the defrocking of the priest, secret correspondence with the Vatican, transfer of police officers in Kerala etc. All along the mother stood steadfast - her daughter did not take her own life.
Thirty-six months later, Roselin’s fight against the might of the Catholic Church for allegedly assisting in the cover-up of the her daughter’s “murder” has reached a tipping point. Last week the five priests were arrested and later released on bail.
The sixth priest, Arockiaraj who stands accused of killing the girl was arrested in 2015 and is now out on conditional bail. Predictably, he denied having any “sexual” relationship with her even as the proceedings of the canonical court show otherwise. The Vicar General of the Coimbatore Diocese says the Church moved swiftly against Arockiaraj, the incident was “very unfortunate” and will not happen again.
William Congreve, English playwright and poet had famously written that that “Hell Hath No Fury Than A Woman Scorned” for a different set of circumstances. Here it is the death of a child, and Roselin is a grieving mother who has gone to battle. Hell also has no fury than a mother scorned. And the church needs to give answers.