Savio Rodrigues: Crusader against sexual abuse by Catholic clergy

“My fight is not a fight against the Christian faith; but a fight against the institution. Raping nuns and children is not what my religion stands for! The institution of the Catholic Church, has diluted the message of the faith and that needs to be addressed,” says Savio Rodrigues, journalist, Founder and Editor-in-chief, Goa Chronicle, entrepreneur and activist. In a  telephonic interview, he talks about the  global phenomenon of sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic Church and the need to address it pragmatically and sensitively with informed perspectives and  zero-tolerance.

Q 1.) As a practising Christian, you’ve also been an outspoken champion about the need to pragmatically address the serious issue of  sexual abuse  and corruption by the clergy of the Catholic Church. How and why do you do what you do?

My family and I are devout Catholic Christians based in Goa. My parents, wife and the extended family are very supportive of my crusade against the corruption and sexual abuse  by the clergy in the Catholic church because of the immense  confidence  and faith they have in me  that I would crusade for what is morally and ethically right.

My fight is not a fight against the Christian faith; but a fight against the institution. Raping nuns and children is not what my religion stands for! Over the years, the institution of the Catholic Church, has diluted the message of the faith and that needs to be addressed. As a qualified journalist, isn’t it my job as a whistle-blower to expose these scandals and make society a safer place for all of us?  As a  Practising Catholic, am I not  primarily responsible for  calling out my dharma?

Q 2.) Can you tell us how your crusade began?

Ironically, it was triggered  by a letter from Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi  in 2018  to all parish priests and religious institutions in the Archdiocese of Delhi where he warned them that the turbulent political situation of the nation had endangered the democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution and threatened the secular fabric of the nation because of the BJP government. The letter was timed to coincide with  the  impending General Elections. I found this misinformed and extremely dangerous rhetoric and hence countered the archbishop with an open letter and  also engaged with the issue  on Times Now.

Let’s us ask ourselves one question:  If Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was to make a statement saying let’s defeat the Christian conversion forces and let’s fast  and pray on Monday or Thursday; would that be considered by media and fake secularists to be communal?  Same for Delhi Archbishop.  I strongly felt  Bharat had not done the Christians any harm. So, why degrade the country politically and whip up  fear mongering in people?

Senior Christian leaders like archbishop Anil Couto, and Archbishop Thomas Macwan have sounded the bugle of Christians, The Constitution , Democracy and Secularism as being in danger. The pertinent question is: From whom in Bharat—the government, the fundamentalists, or the sexual predators within the Catholic clergy itself? In response, a fatwa was issued against me that offered Rs. 50,000  to anyone who’d blacken my face and garland me with shoes!

It also spurred me to carry out a study on the crimes in the Catholic church in Bharat that I termed the ‘Christian Devils’ to highlight that the real dangers facing the Catholic church lurked within  the institution!

Q 3.) What were some of the major findings of your study (Christian Devils) on corruption and sexual abuse by the clergy in the Catholic church in the country?

The team of Goa Chronicle  and Indian Expose, through its research arm Project Core, conducted a study from 2014-2019 on the nature of crimes committed by religious leaders: nuns, priests, pastors, bishops and archbishops from the Christian community in Bharat and those of Bharatiya origin living abroad. These crimes (assault, fraud, sexual assault and murder) have been registered with the police in different states in the country.

Our study highlighted that there were 97 cases registered against clergy of Christian faith in the country and a shocking 7 by clergy of Bharatiya origin outside the country in the US and UK.  Interestingly, 80 percent of the crimes by clergy were  of sexual abuse. Kerala and Tamil Nadu were the states with the highest crimes by clergy in the country. Among the 110 cases, 88 were sexual abuse  and 55 of them were sexual abuse of minors who were between 5-11 years. Thirty-seven of the 88 instances of sexual abuse occurred in the Catholic Church and the rest in other denominational churches.

Q 4.) As we all know, the Catholic Church, unlike the Anglican or Evangelical churches, insists on mandatory celibacy for its priests and nuns. Does this have any implication on sexual abuse  by the clergy?

Sexual abuse, like elsewhere and with other religious and non-religious institutions, takes place across all Christian denominations. When people join the Catholic clergy, the commitment to lifelong celibacy is  voluntarily accepted  with complete awareness of its implications. Non celibacy, calls for a fundamental reform in the Catholic Church, which needs  institutional sanction. However, if it helps the clergy become better priests or nuns, it is something I’d fully endorse. However, I also oppose the idea of marriage as an antidote to sexual abuse. They’re not co related. Sexual abuse  is about abuse of power and breach of trust. It is demonic, diabolical and despicable.

Q 5.) Across the world, sexual abuse is covered up  and is cloaked in the 4S: Stigma, shame, secrecy and silence. Could you tell us how the Catholic Church, across the world, has been dealing with sexual abuse by the clergy?

Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is a global phenomenon. It is not random or consists of a few isolated instances. Yet what is incredible and perhaps shocking is that the intimidation and cover up,  the detailed modus operandi  that the church adopts is identical. Sexual abuse is seen as an “internal” matter. For instance, when I started speaking about this issue, the unanimous opinion was that by stirring a hornet’s nest, I was only creating trouble for myself! They erroneously believe that being outspoken about it will tarnish and destroy the goodwill and reputation of the institution.

From what I’ve seen, currently, instances of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the country, are being dealt with “internally.” This simply means that while the powers that be are fully aware of the nature, magnitude and  gravity of the crime, there is a convergence in collusion at all levels. The perpetrator is usually transferred to another diocese or referred  for psychiatric treatment. The camaraderie within the church ensures that the perpetrator is well “protected.”  If the offence has been proved, the matter must be taken to the local law enforcement, which never happens. Hence there is a  disgusting absence of corrective action and the perpetrator goes scot free, only to start his  cycle of perpetration in another place!  The ex-communication (de frocking) or divesting the accused clergy of his ecclesiastical duties never happens!

The Catholic Church gets it completely wrong by accepting the reality of sexual abuse and simultaneously refusing to  address it with zero-tolerance. It’s also why so many Christians are  moving away from their faith!

Q 6.) What are some of the ways that you have highlighted about the need to create awareness on this issue and sensitize followers and the larger community to this issue?

Globally, the Christian faith is facing a crisis on account of growing reportage of sexual abuse by the clergy, which previously remained covered up. Now, however, globally and in Bharat, victims and their families are fighting sexual predators in the clergy.

However, the weakness of the Catholic community is that they are completely entrenched in their views of a  religious leader who is infallible and therefore find it difficult to accept that he could be accused of such a heinous crime. Reformation or change in attitudes that sexual abuse by the clergy is a reality that needs to be confronted, takes time and am hopeful about what I see. However, my poser to  the members of my community: Can you absorb the truth of what I am saying? How long can we keep silent about this?

As part of my concerted  initiatives to highlight the issue, we’ve launched the Hail Mary Foundation (along with Chennai-based Joseph Kennedy) and out first documentary Hail Mary, that captures the lived experiences of survivors of sexual abuse by the Catholic Church in the country is scheduled for an  international release early next year.  I hope it opens up the minds of practising Christians to their moral and ethical rights and responsibilities  as a member of the faith to address this issue. There is nothing even remotely “internal” about sexual abuse: it’s a preventable public issue that needs to be nipped in the bud.

Q 7.) What is the current position of the Vatican with regard to sexual abuse by the clergy in the Catholic Church?

The Vatican is most concerned  about the alarming increase in sexual abuse by Catholic clergy across the world. Just a month back, the Vatican has issued stringent guidelines that sexual abuse  by the clergy  needs to be taken very seriously by the diocese  and the  Catholic Church across the world. At a  Global Summit in February 2019, Pope Francis  directed the Catholic clergy to  address this issue seriously. It was the first time that here  has been a broader framework to deal with this issue at the diocese, parish and church levels  to explore how to address the issue.

The intent is certainly laudable and is a constructive effort by the Catholic Church. However  mandatory requirements such as setting up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to look into the issue, reporting it to the law enforcement, implementation, enforcement and correlation with the laws of the country remain formidable challenges.

Q 8.) Sexual abuse in Christian institutions seems to be treated as a no-investigation zone by democratically elected governments in our country. Could you elaborate on the systemic biases and fear of upsetting minority institutions that  results in  such pampering and preferential treatment  by the government?

Whether its Bishop Franco Mulakkal or Asaram Bapu, if a crime has been committed, they need to be arrested by the laws of  the land! However, currently  what fuels this is the politics of hatred on the basis of religion! For instance, in the Bishop Mulakkal case, people who mattered kept quiet! Where were the feminists? Why didn’t they lend their support to the nun who was sexually victimised? Is it that nuns’ lives don’t matter?

The BJP should have voiced their unequivocal support for the victim. Instead, they too, fuelled by the politics of appeasement, chose to  keep quiet! Tragically, 99 percent of people in the country don’t know the true meaning of secularism. Secularism is not acceptance of all religions in governance; it is the acceptance of no religion in matters of governance.

My crusade for victims of sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy is driven by my strong Christian faith; not the faith in an institution. We can’t shy away from our responsibility as citizens of this country, and as members of a particular faith it is our duty and responsibility to make people understand that one’s faith is distinct from the institution which represents it. There are evil people in it and our efforts must be towards humanising the institution so that it is compatible and aligned with the faith it represents. It’s not that sexual abuse does not happen in other religions. However, as a practising Christian, I feel I have an ethical and moral responsibility to first clean up my house before I address this issue in other faiths.

My religion, which is matter of a personal communion with my God,  cannot be equated with my nationality. As an Indian Christian, my nationality precedes my religion and I am a nationalist. As Christians, I would want my community to have a larger focus: how can we  contribute to nation building?


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About the Author

Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera.