Church sex scandals shake India’s Kerala state

A spate of sex scandals has exposed the dark side of the clergy in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Despite growing calls for reform of the church, religious leaders continue to resist.

Wracked by a rash of sex scandals, the church is facing one of its lowest moments in the southern state of Kerala.

Four priests of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church are currently facing charges of raping and blackmailing a woman in a cycle of abuse and threats lasting almost 20 years. The woman told police that her ordeal began while still a minor in the 1990s when an Orthodox priest at a church forced her into sex.

She confessed to a second priest, who allegedly blackmailed her into having sex with him. A further two priests also threatened her and forced her into sex, the woman, who has not been named, told investigators. “What is happening in Kerala, priests are becoming accused in rape cases,” India’s Supreme Court remarked recently as it asked the state police to file a status report on the investigation done against the four clergymen.

This is, however, not the only sexual abuse case involving clergymen in Kerala. In the last 18 months, at least 12 priests in the state have been accused of committing sexual offences.

Last month, a 39-year-old woman from Alappuzha district accused a priest of the Orthodox Church of raping her in 2014. At the time of the incident, the priest was serving as the vicar of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church. The case is under investigation.

In June, a 46-year-old nun accused a bishop of raping her on multiple occasions at a small township near Kottayam between 2014 and 2016.

According to her complaint, she was abused on 13 different occasions — the first time was in 2014 at a guest house near an orphanage.  The nun only approached the police after the church reportedly failed to intervene despite repeated requests.

Earlier this year, another Catholic priest of the Pala diocese was arrested on charges of raping a woman of British-Bangladeshi descent. The woman reportedly came to Kerala to meet the priest after they met on social media.


‘A real crisis’

“The church is facing a real crisis. Sexual exploitation and torture behind the church walls as well as malpractices are tumbling out and more dirt will surface,” George Joseph, president of the Kerala Catholic Reforms Movement, told DW.

Christians constitute about 18 percent of Kerala’s over 35 million people. The church plays an important role in society, wielding considerable influence over educational and healthcare institutions.

Many cite the church’s proximity to the political class as a major reason for the authorities’ reluctance to investigate cases involving clergymen.

In an explosive autobiography, titled “Amen,” a Catholic nun, Sister Jesme, detailed how sexual abuse and exploitation were rife in the church and there were blatant attempts to brush them under the carpet.

“I wrote my book in 2008. All that has come out is just a tip of the iceberg. There is much more that needs to be unearthed. It is a heady mix of power, money and sex,” Jesme, who is writing a sequel to her book, told DW.


Fierce resistance to change

Some believe abolishing confessions in churches would go a long way in checking abuse and blackmailing of women and nuns.

India’s National Commission for Women has called on the government to scrap confessions in all churches, saying they were being used to blackmail vulnerable women.

“They (confessions) come in the way of security and safety of women and are being grossly abused as we found in our interviews,” NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma told DW.

Unsurprisingly, the NCW’s recommendation has met fierce resistance from Christian religious leaders. They argue that any such move would be an infringement on the religious customs and practices of the church.

The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council slammed the demand and said it had hurt the “religious sentiments” of India’s Christian minority.

“This is a shocking recommendation. The NCW is completely ignorant of the ways of the church. This can never be accepted,” Archbishop Soosa Pakiam, president of the bishops’ council, told DW.

Kuriakose Theophilos, spokesperson of the Jacobite Syrian Church, also claimed that such a move would hurt the sentiments of the Christian community.

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