Kerala sex-for-silence case

Controversy over the Kerala sex-for-silence scandal, uncovered at a local church where a priest allegedly used revelations made during confessions to sexually harass a woman, refuses to die as religious groups, the national minority commission and a women’s body all have their concerns and takes on the matter.

The most recent reactions came from Kerala’s Malankara Orthodox Church, which said it will hold a protest on 5 August against the National Commission for Women’s (NCW) recommendation for banning confessions in churches over fears they could lead to women being blackmailed. The church sent a memorandum to the Union government against the move on Friday, calling the recommendation “shocking”.

A Kerala bishop’s body has echoed the church’s sentiments. It wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday, accusing the NCW of “abusing its powers” by submitting a “one-sided report” without consulting the church. The body called it an “irresponsible” act done “with ulterior motives”, PTI reported.

Representational image.

“It was shocking not only for the Christian community but also to everyone who stands for the freedom of religion,” Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council president Archbishop Soosa Pakiam said at a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram. “It amounts to insulting the practice of sacrament of confession in the name of an isolated incident, which has yet to be proved. It also amounts to violation of the freedom of faith and religion guaranteed by the Constitution.”

On the alleged sexual exploitation of the woman by four priests, he said: “The church is a body of humans. So it is not beyond errors. The mistakes will be corrected within the church and the offenders punished.”

The National Commission for Minorities (NCM) also strongly opposed the NCW recommendation, saying the practice of confessions was an integral part of Christianity and cannot be interfered with. “The minority commission outrightly rejects the recommendation and is opposed to it,” NCM chairperson Syed Ghayorul Hasan Rizvi told PTI. “The practice of confession is an integral part of the religion of Christianity, so it cannot be banned. There can be no interference with religious practice.”

Moreover, Archbishop of Bombay Diocese and president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, Cardinal Oswald Gracias,  also criticised the NCW recommendation, calling it a “direct infringement on our freedom of religion guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.” He also suggested that there were “very many issues concerning women that the commission should pay attention to” instead of trying to meddle with Christianity, without any understanding “of the nature, meaning, sanctity and importance of this sacrament for our people”.

Union minister says NCW recommendation not govt stand

Meanwhile, Union minister Alphons Kannanthanam, a Kerala native and a Christian, “rejected outright” the NCW’s recommendation, insisting that the Modi government would never interfere in people’s religious beliefs. Kannanthanam came out against the NCW recommendation after the Church in Kerala protested.

“It is not the official stand of the government. The Union government has no connection with the stand taken by NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma. It is her personal opinion,” the minister of state for tourism wrote in a Facebook post.

“The Narendra Modi government would never interfere in people’s religious beliefs,” he insisted. The minister said there was no need for making such a recommendation. “Since it has come, the Modi government rejects it outright.”

Earlier, the Supreme Court had also reacted on the issue. It sought a status report of the police investigation in the case related to priests from the Malankara Church. “What is happening in Kerala? Priests are becoming accused in rape cases,” the Supreme Court had said on Thursday.

On Thursday, NCW chief Rekha Sharma had said that the women’s body had recommended abolishing the practice of “confessions” in churches as it can lead to women being blackmailed. She said a central agency needed to investigate the incidents of rape and sexual assault in the Kerala’s churches. “The priests pressure women into telling their secrets. and we have one such case in front of us. There must be many more such cases, and what we have right now is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

The NCW’s recommendations came in the backdrop of a rape case against four priests of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, who have been accused of sexually exploiting a married woman belonging to their church. The matter came to the fore after the victim’s husband wrote to the church, alleging that the priests had blackmailed and abused his wife, a school teacher.

The women’s panel had set up an inquiry committee to look into the alleged sexual assaults against women in churches. It has sent its findings to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Affairs Minister Rajnath Singh, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi and the director general of the Kerala and Punjab police.

“The woman was socially harassed. She left her job after the incident as her photograph was circulated on social media. The two priests are at large and they need to be nabbed,” the NCW chairperson said.

In another incident, in a complaint to the Kottayam district police chief in June, a nun had alleged that Jalandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal had raped her and had unnatural sex with her multiple times at a small town near Kottayam between 2014 and 2016.

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