The 2015 movie ‘Spotlight’ had a profound, lasting impact worldwide, not only because it was a finely made motion picture that spoke about the long-standing issue of child sexual abuse by the church, but also for the manner in which it highlighted the fact that the church and the whole organisational system of Christian authorities go to elaborate lengths to deny, hide, hush up the crimes and take great measures to shelter and rehabilitate the guilty priests. In one powerful scene, Mitchell Garabedian tells the journalist Michael Rezendes, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” He was, of course, referring to the deeply rooted system of the clergy, lawyers and private patrons including government officials who go to great lengths to cover up the crimes and help the guilty go unpunished.
India, sadly, has not been immune to the plague either. Christian priests and churches, like most cases worldwide, have been targeting the poor, destitute for their crimes and the cases go unnoticed. At most, a case grabs a little spot in newspapers for a day or two and then is lost in obscurity. It is mostly due to the speed and reachability of digital and social media that nowadays, more and more cases are coming to highlight. Even if there are many, many cases, none of them get the media attention or outrage. The sordid tale was also documented by one Varun Reddy on Twitter.
Recently in Vallampadu, Andhra Pradesh, a 45-year-old pastor was booked for brutally raping an 11-year old girl. In July 2017, Father Saji Joesph, a priest who was the director of a children’s home in Kerala’s Wayanad district, was arrested after allegations of sexually abusing minor boys. In 2013, an illegal shelter home housing dozens of children from extremely poor families in North Eastern India was reported in Jaipur. One girl had accused priest Jacob John of rape and as many as 13 girls were suspected to have been sexually abused by the priest. The children were all found to be living in cramped rooms amongst rotten vegetables in an utterly unhygienic environment. In 2011, a heartbreaking case had come to light in Guntur when a local church priest had set a minor girl on fire after sexually abusing her for over a year. The girl succumbed to her injuries after suffering 90% burns. In 2010, a priest named Habib Joesph was arrested for alleged sexual abuse of a minor. The sister of the minor girl had died in the same institution a year earlier. The girl alleged that she and her sister were both being sexually abused regularly and this was known to the nuns in charge of the girl. The girl’s elder sister had died allegedly after being raped by the priest and beaten by the nun. Habib Joseph was granted bail within a day.
Though there are dozens of cases of child sexual abuse by church priests, the crimes are not limited to it. There are endless stories of exploitation, emotional abuse, illegal trafficking, land grabbing, and mysterious deaths surrounding churches. In a rather shocking incident in Hyderabad in 2016, a pastor was arrested for forcing the children under his care to beg on the streets. Rape and exploitation of adult women is another frequent trait too.
Very few cases actually see a conviction. Before POCSO Act came into effect, getting bail and being charged under easily bailable offences was rather frequent. The acts often went unreported and severely underreported because of one principal reason. The victims are almost always poor, destitute children coming from families who barely make ends meet. For a family struggling with poverty, an institution that provides free shelter and education comes as a blessing (pun intended) and they are often swayed by the influential tactics and pious image of the priests.
Nothing can be a better example of the inactivity of law and the disregard shown by the church authorities than the sordid tale of Paul Henry Dean, a fugitive from Australia who came to India and started working as Brother Alan and sometimes as Father Paul. Not only did Paul managed to sexually abuse countless deaf, dumb and mentally challenged boys for decades in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, he was protected and facilitated with impunity by his employers. Such was the extent of the church’s protection that Paul was allowed to perform cataract surgeries and limb amputations in health camps posing as a doctor. Whenever Paul was nabbed, he managed to get bail immediately, only to go to a different institution run by missionaries and continue his dastardly acts. The saddest part of the story was as almost all of his victims were disabled and from severely poor families, they never had a chance to take a stand against him.
Paul’s case is not even the only one of a failed justice system. A pastor named Rev Jonathan Robinson, who was accused of sexually abusing a boy in 2011 repeatedly, happily returned to the UK after committing the crime and after returning to India to face trials as per the government’s request, fled the country soon after being convicted and granted a bail. Robinson was considered a friend of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
The examples given here are only a few cases of the hundreds of cases that exist. Before POCSO Act came into existence, many offenders easily cheated the system and remained free. Even after the new laws and increasing public awareness, there can be no denial that there exists very low admittance and self-correction in case of Christian institutions. Often it is seen that it is the church which gets actively involved in covering up and ignoring the crimes. The institutions, which are usually so vocal when it comes to issuing political directions are often seen shielding the guilty and wielding their power to subvert the law. This approach needs to be broken and it will be broken when the crimes get equal attention, media coverage and subsequent public outrage like the others. When there is enough push from the society to bring every criminal to justice with equal urgency, the network of protectionism will collapse eventually.
Crimes are not specific to religion. The sick trait of criminality and abuse does not discriminate between people. But it is the institutionalised protection, lack of a strong justice system and failure of society’s own safeguards like the media that help and abet a crime to flourish. One rape covered up instigates another rapist to take a chance. When media incessantly focuses crimes however distantly related to one religion and ignores those committed by the other, it emboldens the criminals to continue their behaviour. When we claim law and system to be secular, we need to make our perspectives of looking at a crime secular too.
Update: Priest Savi Avangattu mentioned in this report was later acquitted of all charges due to lack of evidence. The minor who accused him turned hostile in the court and took back all the charges, which the prosecution observed could have been due to out of court settlement. The Priest told OpIndia that he didn’t press any defamation charges against the party that accused him as ‘it is ingrained in his mind and his spirit to forgive those who have harmed him or sinned against him’.