Special Prosector Beena Kaliyath has worked in the Thalassery Additional District Court for 20 years. However, Saturday’s judgement which convicted Fr Robin Vadakkumchery of the Mananthavady diocese, of raping and impregnating a 16-year old girl, had been one of the toughest cases of her career, she said in an interview with TNM.
In the afternoon of February 16, 2019, the Thalassery POCSO court sentenced the accused priest from Wayanad to 60 years of rigorous imprisonment (to be served concurrently for 20 years), for the rape and impregnation of the minor girl, who studied in a Christian school which the accused had headed.
The survivor had given birth to a baby boy on February 7, 2017, after being sexually assaulted multiple times by the accused priest. This kickstarted investigations by the Childline, the police and the prosecution which finally brought the accused Father to justice two years later. In the years that preceded his conviction, there were several impediments, but none like the Catholic Church which quietly flexed its muscle to sway the course of the trial, Beena says.
“We examined 38 witnesses in total. Barring police officials, most of them were from the parish where the accused was priest. And weirdly, almost all of them supported him,” Beena tells TNM.
The church may not have directly attempted to protect the accused priest here, but fear-based faith had indeed silenced the witnesses into supporting him in the box, she believes.
“There were many witnesses who told me off record that they received calls asking them to not insult or defame the Church. They were told that it would be shameful. If the priest had indeed sinned, let God punish him. Who are we to implicate him, they argued” Beena says.
Where fear-based faith reigns, justice become secondary, and this is what nearly cost Beena her case. The three main witnesses -- the survivor, her mother and father -- had suddenly turned hostile, claiming that the physical relationship between the minor girl and the accused priest was consensual, she says.
“The girl said that she had enjoyed her relationship with the priest. She said that she was 18 when the incident occurred - a claim which was disproved by us as she was just 16 years and 5 months old then” Beena adds.
What's even more shocking is that prior to her admission, the girl had accused her biological father of raping her. That statement was, again, debunked by the police when the girl's father revealed that he had taken the blame to protect the church and the accused priest.
“He had told the police that he did not mind taking the blame as his daughter knew he had not done it. They (the family) did not want to blame the church,” Beena says.
In its judgement, the POCSO court too confirmed that it was Fr Robin who had raped the girl.
“The victim used to go to the church to attend prayers (Masses) and to do works relating to data entries in the computer installed at the church. The victim used to go to the bedroom of A1 (Accused). A1 used to commit sexual assault against the victim and threatened the victim that the matter was not to be disclosed. On a day during the month of May, 2016, A1 induced the victim to go to the bedroom of A1. Thereafter, A1 committed rape and penetrative sexual assault against the victim..” according to the 85-page judgement, which confirmed the charge against the accused priest.
Priest planned to buy the victim’s silence and flee to Canada
On February 10, 2017, a week after the baby was born, the incident came to light when Amal Jeeth, the Childline co-ordinator and the victim’s neighbour in Kottiyoor began investigations.
“I heard that a minor girl had given birth here and did my fair share of spying by speaking to people in the church. I understood that Fr Robin was involved in the case and immediately shared the information with the local police,” Amal tells TNM.
On February 28, the then 48-year-old priest was arrested by the Thrissur police within 2 days. He was remanded to judicial custody. Media houses reported then that the priest had attempted to buy the family’s silence, offering them Rs 10 lakh.
Beena adds that the Fr Robin had even prepared to flee to Canada, where he has property and contacts.
“When the Thrissur police nabbed him, he had already got his Canadian visa and ticket ready. We learnt that he had planned to rehabilitate the victim and her parents to a house with better facilities and to move the baby to an orphanage. The baby was moved on the day of its birth with the help of six others who were accused,” she says.
The six others accused included five nuns from St Sebastian’s church where Fr Robin was vicar, and one administrator of Christu Raja hospital where the survivor’s baby had been born. They were accused of covering up the incident by taking the baby to an orphanage in Vythiri on the day of his birth. All six of them were acquitted by the court due to lack of substantial evidence, a result of non-compliance by the witnesses, Beena believes.
“Because most witnesses gave statements supporting the accused we could not establish the links between the other accused persons. This led to it looking a conspiracy which could not be proven, thus exonerating all the accused,” she says.
Birth certificate and school admission revealed victim’s age
When all else, including the victim’s statement failed, it was three crucial documents and the baby’s DNA test which helped convict the priest.
“We submitted the victim’s birth certificate, school admission form and the live birth certificate (the document submitted to the municipality informing the body of the child’s birth). All these documents pointed out that the victim was a minor - 16 yrs old," Beena says.
This confirmation was made even as the survivor's parents refused to hand over her birth certificate. They claimed that they did not have one as she was delivered in their ancestral house, in a bid to hide her true age” Beena adds.
The case began on August 8, 2018 and ended on February 18, 2019. With continuous hearings every week and examinations of several witnesses, the court finally convicted the accused of rape.
The 85-page judgement awards Fr Robin, 20 years of rigorous imprisonment under section 376 (2) (f) of the IPC - commits rape on a woman when she is under twelve years of age; or, 3(A) (4) POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act and 5F and 5J(2) (6) - penetrative sexual assault- of POCSO Act.
A fine of Rs 3 lakh had to be paid by the convict apart from serving 20 years for each of the sections concurrently. The court added that default in payment of the fine would lead to one more year of rigorous imprisonment.
The court handed over the decision on the protection of the baby to Legal Services Authority, and directed for compensation to be paid to the baby for the torment it had to endure. As for the parents of the victim who had given false statements in the box, the court directed for an inquiry to be conducted against them.