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Sex and the Church: Sins of the Fathers

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Charges levelled against four priests for using confessions to blackmail and rape a woman shake up the Orthodox Syrian Church in Kerala and bring clerical abuse to the fore again

EARLIER THIS MONTH, an ‘affidavit’ of rather scandalous proportions was leaked to a section of the media in Kerala. It contained salacious and incriminating details by a woman, a member of the close-knit Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, confessing sexual relations with four priests of the congregation. Let aside the fact that the document—which the husband has handed over to the Church—offers ticklish details of her carnal life, a racy read that can probably be fodder for a desi version of Fifty Shades of Grey, she also had more disturbing allegations to level: of one priest having used her confessions as a blackmail device to demand sexual gratification in exchange for his silence, while the other three used their knowledge of this to demand sex as well. The docket has thrown the institution into the vortex of a sexual-abuse scandal. The lady also appeared before the Crime Branch to make accusations against the priests named in the affidavit.

In the world of the clergy and their followers, what happens in secluded corners of a church or elsewhere has for long been allowed to die a quiet death, but inconvenient truths have been tumbling out with such rapid frequency of late that the authorities have been grappling with the prospect of institutions built on Christian ethics and morality suffering public embarrassment. That even the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, which has its headquarters in Kottayam district of Kerala and allows its priests to marry, has had its image tarnished points to a crisis that the renowned scholar of Christianity Luke Timothy Johnson had spoken about: a crisis involving sex and power. Johnson warned against how authority and sexual morality have become ‘intertwined’ and how ‘together they threaten the integrity of the church’, whatever the denomination.

Lately, several Catholic institutions have come under attack in India over their apparent bids to save errant priests, all of whom are avowed celibates, from their victims—be they women, men or even children who are brave enough to talk—and so it is not shocking to see why the trend is catching on among the clergy who are married as well. Malayalam writer Benyamin, who has closely followed the Orthodox Syrian Church, feels that marriages among priests were seen as a deterrent to sexual misconduct for long, and therefore unlike the Catholic Church, the Orthodox one in India reported fewer instances of the abuse of followers by people in authority. “But with societies becoming more demanding of newer opportunities even when it comes to sex, such trends are seen inside the church as well,” he says, emphasising that in India, especially in Kerala, women are standing up for their rights thanks to a variety of factors.

Benyamin, who was born as a member of the Church now under attack, says that such powerful institutions that extol a higher purpose have often displayed dictatorial tendencies and boycotted those who dared to speak against their authority. “They could influence newspapers and media houses to hush up such cases of sexual harassment and related deaths, but no longer,” he says, citing the Sister Abhaya murder trial, the longest in Kerala’s police history, which dragged on for more than 16 years, with various agencies concluding that it was a case of suicide until a third probe by the CBI found it was murder. The Syro-Malabar Knanaya Catholic Church came under flak from activists for reportedly trying to suppress the case using money power and its religious authority.

Forty-nine-year-old Benyamin, one of the most popular Malayalam novelists of his generation, thanks mainly to his work Aadu Jeevitham (Goat Days), feels that attitudes of people towards women’s rights have changed over the decades, as has their quest for freedom. It is true that in Kerala women have become extremely conscious of their rights and are speaking out openly against any kind of harassment, be it in the church, the office or even in the movies. No longer are these male preserves, and religious institutions, political parties and film industries, among others, cannot stop their biases against women being unmasked anymore. Their frequent adjudication on matters over which they have no right in a country governed by rule of law is being questioned and mechanisms have come up to protect women’s rights. Public opprobrium of blind faith in organisations that pander to toxic forms of masculinity has helped unearth the truth, and so has social media. “Perhaps this is the age when the deceiver is called out by the deceived,” says a Delhi-based priest who disapproves of people with “poor conscience in the higher echelons of our churches” who are in a hurry to pardon the clergy of their crimes.

“With societies becoming more demanding of newer opportunities even when it comes to sex, such trends are seen inside the church as well” - Benyamin, Malayalam writer

That power and an exaggerated sense of self-importance do not grant a licence to violate anyone’s rights was for all to see as the Kerala Police initiated a probe of rape charges in a case involving a star as famous as Dileep, a matinee idol the likes of whom were expected to walk away with impunity in an industry where such allegations are often hushed up.

Christian denominations, especially Catholics, have without doubt contributed to social development in Kerala by offering its backward classes an opportunity to lead lives of dignity, and have come to influence the state’s politics as well. But the moral authority of priests to preach the difference between the sacred and the profane has taken a knock, as many see it. Bonny Thomas, a Kochi-based writer and cartoonist, says that a movement similar to the Liberation Struggle will not click again. It was an agitation backed by the Church among others and finally resulted in the fall of the democratically elected EMS Namboodiripad-led Communist government in 1959, the first of its kind in Asia.

Thomas’ reasoning makes sense. In a region that Swami Vivekananda had called a ‘madhouse’ (after he saw for himself frivolous Brahminical caste rituals and extreme practices of untouchability as well as ‘unseeability’ on a visit), Christian missionaries did play significant social role, as in the case of the Channar Revolt, which was also called ‘Maaru Marakkal Samaram’ in Malayalam. The missionaries had backed the right of Nadar women to cover their breasts. Yet, the caste system persists among the hierarchy-conscious Christian denominations of Kerala where, to cite two examples, people of hybrid Portuguese ethnicity tend to feel looked down upon by fellow Latin Christians, who often complain of similar treatment by Syrian Christians. Discrimination over their Hindu caste origins continues to be rampant. Notwithstanding the progressive posturing, there is plenty to suggest that women are still treated as inferior beings by men within the Church. With high scepticism in India of proselytising activity, the moral and political interventions of Christian organisations are facing increased resistance in Kerala. And with women followers up in arms, their authority is under renewed attack.

This specific case is proof of female assertion, and various priests who Open spoke to contend that such ‘disclosures’ are positive. “They should no longer be able to have a priest reign supreme after he has taken advantage of the fear and piety of a woman follower,” says one of them, adding that it is a betrayal of faith.

That even the Malankara orthodox Syrian church, which has its headquarters in Kottayam and allows its priests to marry, has had its image tarnished by a scandal points to a broader crisis of sex and power

But the case against the four priests of the Orthodox Syrian Church is murkier than first thought, as the affidavit reviewed by Open suggests. Based on the lady’s complaint, all four priests have been suspended and the police have made arrests. Even the Supreme Court of India had to intervene when two of the clergymen approached the apex court for a shield against their arrest. As a result, the case has been in the national limelight.

Another case also came to light alongside: of a nun who was reportedly sexually assaulted by a Catholic priest, Franco Mulakkal, Bishop of Jalandhar since 2016. This case is also under investigation. Last year, a priest called Father Robin Vadakkumchery was arrested for sexually harassing and impregnating a minor girl. Several such cases have surfaced over the past few decades, bringing disrepute to the Christian church in India, especially Kerala. Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun, originally published in Malayalam by Sister Jesme, a former principal of a college in Kerala, is a frank narration of the corruption, sexism and harassment practised by some members of the congregation.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church case puts the spotlight on how complex at least some of these cases can get.

The lady whose affidavit has kicked up a row admits on the second page of the document that Father Abraham Varghese had sex with her when she was 17, which legally amounts to rape of a minor. She has listed it as a ‘sin’ she committed at least 50 times before her marriage in 2006. Then she goes on to say that she has had a physical relationship with the priest even after his marriage and that they met at various places. She also claims she has had sex chats with various other priests. The Crime Branch has booked Abraham Varghese, Job Mathew, Johnson Mathew and Jaise George, all priests, on charges of rape and molestation in the case. In its defence, the Church has said that some of these priests were not officiated when the alleged incidents took place.

The lady also says that she had been coerced by one of the priests to book rooms in five-star hotels, usually in Kochi. This also meant that she had to steal money from home, her affidavit says, adding that she had exchanged nude photos and videos with some of these priests besides having sex on multiple occasions. She says that she has had sex at least 400 times since 1999 with Father Varghese and had to lie to people close to her just to be able to travel and meet him at assorted places. Open could not independently verify the veracity of these statements. She has apparently told the Crime Branch that she was blackmailed into sexual liaisons with these priests.

Contacted by Open, the husband of this woman says he no longer wants to engage with the media because the case is sub judice, and also for reasons of propriety.

The local media, especially Malayalam television channels, have lapped up the story, arguing that the Church was trying to suppress 19 years of sexual harassment at the hands of multiple priests who used her confessions to drag her into bed. Father MO John of the Church has said he wants to hear from the lady herself whether the affidavit’s charges are true. In the meantime, the Church has earned public anger for its alleged ‘delaying tactics’, insinuations about the character of the victim and its failure to report to the police various cognisable offences even after receiving the affidavit as early as May this year. “It is a big shortcoming on the part of the Orthodox Church,” says a priest based in Kochi who admits that he has heard audio records of ‘sex chats’ between the priests and the lady in question.

Pope Francis has admitted errors made in an official probe of sexual abuse in Chile. Earlier this year, he met three victims of a Chilean priest and asked for their forgiveness

OPEN SPOKE TO a Kochi-based homemaker who says she wanted to make a confession at her local church last year shortly after her mother passed away. She was still grieving and was somewhat remorseful about neglecting her religious duties since her marriage some 20 years ago as she got caught in a struggle to take care of her family—her husband and three children, all of whom are now in high school. After all, in most congregations, Christians are advised the sacrament of Penance to seek God’s forgiveness for all their mortal sins committed after Baptism. “It is when you are deeply depressed that you want to fall back on faith and God. Which was why I wanted to get back to religion. As a first, I wanted to confess,” she says.

In the beginning, she recalls, the priest didn’t betray any questionable motive. He was affable and compassionate until five minutes later when he began to probe her about her married life. How was her marriage? It’s all well, she replied. How was her sex life? It was fine, she said. The next question sent a shiver through her spine: “What all do you do for your husband in bed?”

The homemaker’s first impulse was not to tell her husband about the experience. He had warned her against making confessions just because she was in grief. But a few days later, she told her husband of the question that had left her in shock. “Forget it. There are perverts everywhere,” was his response. The misuse of confessions is quite common these days and one can sense it the moment one sits and starts talking, the homemaker tells me.

While women are pushing for a rational critique of the affairs of the Church, elsewhere in Kerala more women are coming up with tales of woe and vowing to settle unfinished business. The global #MeToo movement is showing greater impact in the state than expected, social scientists observe.

Benyamin points out that men have not been able to keep pace with women in Kerala, and perhaps that explains why males still consider it taboo for their women folk to spill the beans on any kind of sexual abuse. Yet, women are steering a course correction by speaking up bravely before the public, the writer adds.

Worldwide, the misuse of rituals that promise ablution of sins for the faithful has come under the public scanner, forcing various churches to make amends. In Romania, the Orthodox Church apologised to people at large following a spate of sexual scandals involving clergymen and believers—mostly children and women—which rocked the country that has 18,000 churches compared with less than 5,000 schools. But top-level Church functionaries were forced to step down over corruption and sexual indiscretion charges. Books have been written about old secrets that have remained confined to the burning altars and closed rooms of the Church. In his work, The Dark Box, John Cornwell traces the history of the confession as a practice and how it became the perfect tool for clerical child abuse. Pope Francis has himself admitted errors made in an official probe of sexual abuse in Chile; earlier this year, he met three victims of abuse by the Chilean priest Fernando Karadima and asked for their forgiveness. A Vatican statement later said the intention of the meeting was to create a ‘climate of trust and reparation for suffering’. Meanwhile, Adelaide’s Archbishop Philip Wilson was recently sentenced by Australian courts to 12 months’ detention for child sex abuse. According to a New York Times report on July 17th, Catholic dioceses in New Jersey paid two former priests a total of $180,000 after they said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick sexually abused them.

With resistance building up in Kerala—where more than 18 per cent belong to the Christian faith—against male-dominated congregations bending over backwards to protect clerical wrongdoers, it looks like the long arm of the law will show no mercy for betraying Biblical commandments.

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