The Deep-Rooted Problem of Sexual Abuse in the powerful Indian Church

Yet another case of sexual abuse of a minor by a Christian priest has come to light. ‘Father’ Robin Vaddakumchiryil (48), a vicar of St Sebastian church (Syro-Malabar Catholic) in Kottiyoor, Kerala was arrested for alleged rape of a minor which led to her pregnancy, police said on Tuesday. The priest was reportedly trying to flee the country when he was arrested.

The 17-year-old gave birth to a baby at a private hospital last month and the accused had shifted both the mother and the newborn to an orphanage in north Kerala’s Waynard to hush up the incident.

The priest was arrested after the girl narrated the incident to officials of Childline, a telephone helpline for children in distress. Childline officials then tipped of police.

The girl was studying in a school in Kannur, IJM Higher Sec. School. run by Corporate Educational Agency of Diocese of Mananthavady, where Fr. Vaddakumchiryil was the manager. The priest had allegedly abused the girl at the computer class provided by the church, police said.

As per this Outlook report, the school, the church nor the Christuraj hospital in Kannur where the girl delivered the baby reported the matter to the police.

Screenshot of Church-run school site which shows rape-accused Fr. Robin Vaddakumchiryil listed as Manager (his name though has been removed)

The Outlook report says –

“Initially, the girl told the police it was her biological father who committed the crime. “We told her the implications of her statement because she seemed to be shielding someone. Her father is an honest Christian. They may have wanted to protect the parish priest. She then told us the truth and named Fr Robin Vadakkumchery,” the officer said.

“The crime was committed in the parsonage (official residence of the clergy) one day after an early morning mass. We are investigating the details,” said the officer.

Sources in the church say that the priest had bribed the father of the child to own up the crime. This, according to Human rights activist George Pulikuthiyil, is a despicable crime. “It also shows deeper conspiracy to hush up the crime.”

Vadakkumchery was trying to leave the country but was held up over visa when he was picked up by the police.

A sources in church said “A priest can leave the country or work abroad only with the Bishop’s consent. Fr Vadakkumchery was trying to leave the country so the Church must have been aware of the crime and did not report it.”

The police found the baby in an orphanage run by nuns in Vythiri, in Wayanad and now the child has been shifted to an orphanage in Kannur. Fr Thomas Joseph Therakam, chairman of the Child Welfare Committee of Wayanad district, said he was not aware that the mother of the child was a minor.”

It is clear that this is no ordinary crime. Robin Vaddakumchiryil was a powerful senior priest and his ability to hush up the crime –  raping a minor in official Church residence, sending baby to Church-run orphanage, bribing the father, trying to flee the country – show the clear involvement of the entire Church machinery. Although POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012) has been slapped against Vaddakumchiryil, many on social media are calling for POCSO section 21 being applied against the Church as well. As per Section 21 of the POCSO act

“21. Punishment for failure to report or record a case:

(1) Any person, who fails to report the commission of an offence under sub-section (1) of section 19 or section 20 or who fails to record such offence under sub-section (2) of section 19 shall be punished with imprisonment of either description which may extend to six months or with fine or with both.

(2) Any person, being in-charge of any company or an institution (by whatever name called) who fails to report the commission of an offence under sub-section (1) of section 19 in respect of a subordinate under his control, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year and with fine.

(3) The provisions of sub-section (1) shall not apply to a child under this Act.

As per Indian Express, the spokesman of the Mananthavady diocese was not available for comment. Robin Vaddakumchiryil’s name and photograph had been removed from the website of the diocese. Here is the official removal order from the Diocese. Incidentally, the priest used to speak against sexual abuse of children and had even alerted police a few months ago about a sex racket in the region.

Father Robin Vadakkancheril (Vaddakumchiryil) photo still shows up in search results on the Diocese of Mananthavady website (http://www.diocesemdy.org), but the priest’s profile has been deleted.

Effective Perception Management by Church

Such incidents of rape, abuse and even murder by priests are shockingly common, but go largely unnoticed in Bharat. In many cases, there are murmurs of the powerful Church (Catholic, Protestant and other denominations) covering up for the perpetrators, or acting as per diktats of the Vatican rather than report the crimes to local authorities.

Last year, priest Joseph Jeypaul was convicted of sexually assaulting a minor girl in USA, yet the Ooty Diocese covered up for him for a long time, and finally the suspension against him was lifted at the direction of the Vatican. In 2015, Rev. Jose Varkey Palimattom was transferred by the Church in India to Florida, USA despite past sexual abuse of children in Bharat – the priest was found guilty of showing pornographic material to a minor in US and sentenced to 6 months of jail.  Multiple nuns from Kerala have come forward with their horror stories of how they are sexually abused and exploited by senior male priests within closed doors of convents.

But despite such damning evidence, the Church and its spokespersons continue to be ‘respected’ authorities on secularism and other national issues for our media, unlike Hindu organizations and saints who are condemned and mocked at the first whiff of scandal. Such is the hold of the Church over the narrative-setting English language media. Media reports are usually buried in inside pages, and there are never any sustained campaigns of the sort we see on TV for ‘liberal’ issues like alleged sexist comments by a BJP functionary.

‘Secularism’ has such a suffocating choke-hold on our politics that no politician will dare to challenge the powerful Church on repeated cases of sexual abuse by clergy, lest they be branded as communal, hate-mongers.

The ‘Christians under attack’ narrative manufactured in early 2015 on the basis of some stray incidents of vandalism at churches in Delhi, dominated public discourse for 2 months! It was so effective that even ‘Hindu-fascist and communal’ leaders like PM Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh had to personally intervene to calm the hysteria and reassure Christians.

The international clout of the Church is such that Christian leaders from Bharat can easily get audiences with powerful US law makers and easily tar Government of Bharat as anti-minority. The pro-Christian and anti-Hindu tilt of a quasi-US governmental advisory body, US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), is apparent to anyone with a shred of objectivity.

Christians might be only 2.3% of the population going by Census 2011 figures (or at least 6-7% if one were to go by other credible sources, including Western missionary organizations), but the clout the Church enjoys in our Anglicized public sphere is far greater. Hence it is no surprise that the Church is so successful at muzzling any negative news related to it.

The Fathima Sophia & ‘Father’ Arockiaraj case

Last year in August, Catholic priest ‘Father’ Arockiaraj (36) was arrested for allegedly sexually abusing and murdering Fathima Sophia (17) in Kerala’s Palakkad district. Four other clergymen, including a bishop were arrested for allegedly covering up the case. All this happened because the victim’s mother, Roselin, took on the powerful Catholic Church and fought for justice. Here are some excerpts from a detailed report on Roselin’s fight –

“On July 23, 2013, Fathima was found dead in the guestroom of Arockiaraj, the priest of St Stanislaus Church in Walayar in Palakkad district of Kerala. Police registered a case of suicide and the matter was soon closed.

What followed were a series of bizarre events — Father Arockiaraj allegedly confessing to the victim’s mother that he killed her, a ‘letter’ that pointed to a relationship between Sophia and Arockiaraj, a secret canonical court that resulted in the defrocking of Arockiaraj, some secret correspondence with Rome, transfer of police officers in Kerala. All along, Roselin says, she knew her daughter hadn’t killed herself.

Though Arockiaraj, now 36, denies murdering Sophia and says he had “no sexual relationship” with her, the minutes of the proceedings of a canonical court held on August 19, 2013, four weeks after the murder, show otherwise. In the meeting — The Sunday Express has accessed its minutes — Arockiaraj admits that he had “bodily contact” with the victim and that he “used her”. The meeting, presided over by Coimbatore diocese Bishop Thomas Aquinas, had ended with the Bishop saying that he has to write to Rome for “not to say Mass”, meaning Arockiaraj’s suspension.

Fr. John Joseph, the Vicar General of the Coimbatore Diocese, says the Church acted immediately against Arockiaraj “as per the canon law”. When asked why the Church hadn’t reported sexual abuses against a minor to police, he says, “That was a mistake… We are innocent… It was a very, very unfortunate incident. There were mistakes on the part of the Church too. But we didn’t do it on purpose.”

So the Church brazenly covered up a crime and justified it saying that they acted as per ‘Christian law’. Who is the Church to deliver justice, or ‘forgive’ a priest quoting ‘God’s plan’? Shades of sharia courts and much-maligned khap justice, dear liberals?

At one point, Roselin and her family were even attacked and the Church organized massive protests to get them excommunicated. Cruelly, as Fathima’s death was declared a suicide, the Church even denied her burial rituals.

How many of us outside Kerala even heard of this case? Was it ever discussed on NDTV, AajTak, Star News etc with the same passion and energy as the Dadri lynching, Vemula suicide or Una flogging? Why did no politician, even from BJP, take up the matter in Lok Sabha?

The answer to those questions will tell you what is wrong with public discourse in Bharat today, and also why the minor who suffered at the hands of Robin Vaddakumchiryil is unlikely to get justice.


Updates

28 Feb 2017, 1:30 PM : The article has been updated with additional information regarding the case, pertaining to Father Vaddakumchiryil’s additional role as manager of the school where the victim studied, his attempts to bribe the father to hush up the case, and his attempt to flee the country.

We thank twitter user @by2kaafi for sharing the same with us. It is through such crowd-sourcing that HinduPost is able to highlight important issues ignored or buried in mainstream media.


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