In a shocking case of impunity, a former Catholic priest from Kerala has moved court asking for a two-month parole to marry the woman he was convicted of raping. At the time of the abuse, the survivor was 16-years-old and a student of 11th standard. The crime took place in May 2016.
The accused in the case, Robin Vadakkumchery, who was at that time a vicar of the local church at Kottiyur and therefore exercised immense influence in the region. He was arrested in 2018 as he tried to flee to Canada. He was convicted by a Thalaserry POCSO court and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment and also fined Rs 2 lakh.
But there was more to the case than sexual exploitation of a minor girl. The survivor delivered a baby in February 2017, who was sent to an orphanage and six people allegedly assisted Vadakkumchery in the case; Thangamma Nelliyani, Wayanad Child Welfare Committee (CWC) Chairman Fr Thomas Joseph Therakam, CWC committee member Sister Betty Jose and Superintendent of an orphanage in Wayanad Sister Ophelia, along with Sister Liss Mariya and Sister Anita. However, the court acquitted them all.
Vadakkumchery was defrocked by the Pope in March 2020, something that any other clergyman would have viewed as a humiliating punishment. But not Vadakkumcherry who instead used this as a means to further his get-out-of-jail agenda. On July 15 this year he filed an application counter-signed by the survivor’s parents saying that now that he is no longer a priest, he is not bound by the vow of celibacy. He further said that he ‘was in love’ with the survivor who is now 20 years old. He said he wants parole to marry the survivor and take care of their child who is at present still growing up in institutional care. However, grounds for parole are stringent and limited to death of a close family member and sickness.
There are two key disturbing elements to this latest development; firstly it is difficult to tell if the survivor has been coerced or pressured into agreeing to marrying her rapist, and secondly, if the rapist is using this opportunity to marry the survivor just to weaken the rape case against him, thus attempting to escape his sentence. This ploy to marry the survivor is not new and the high premium society places on marriage is often used as a means to commit further injustice.
However, in the matter of State of Madhya Pradesh vs Madan Lal (2015), the Supreme Court had observed, “No compromise is legally permissible in a rape case. Such attitude reflects lack of sensibility towards the dignity of women.”
It is noteworthy that in the past the survivor’s father had been pressured to accept false allegations of raping his daughter. The family had also allegedly been offered Rs 10 lakhs.
But now, in a letter to leaders of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India and Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, a group of catholic women including eminent lawyers, social activists, academicians and theologicians, under the umbrella of Sisters in Solidarity have said, “We are afraid that the girl and her family coming from a very vulnerable background and from a low economic status will be lured by the economic offers made by the culprit or for the privileged position he held in their life as a priest earlier, and so they may give in to his proposal for marriage. We find this extremely atrocious and read this as an attempt on his part to escape punishment.”
The group went on to say, “Rape of a minor is a very serious crime. Even more serious when committed by a priest who is bound by the vow of celibacy, due to which people trust him unquestioningly. Such atrocious moves on the part of rapists become a violation of the very dignity of women.” The letter also warns, “With increasing number of child sexual abuse cases coming to light within the Catholic Church, it is even more important to declare that the Church does not support child rape as a basis for legitimising a Christian marriage. Silence in this case will be seen as the Church being party to crime.”
The group has made the following proposals to safeguard the survivor and bring about much-needed reforms in the Church:
·That the survivor should be kept under the guidance of a counsellor to prevent her from making decisions that may mar her future.
·That the KCBC/CBCI takes steps to ensure that priests trained in seminaries should be able to handle their sexuality and their celibacy with responsibility, and treat girls, women and nuns with dignity and respect.
·That priests are trained in the laws covering sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults and that their formation ensures that they understand they are not above any law.
·That the various associations in the Catholic Church at the national/regional/ diocesan/parish level take up programmes that will facilitate a change in attitudes of men towards women, as well as women towards themselves.
·That the CBCI Gender Policy be enforced with determination. A frame work for implementation should be put in place with structures, funds, and other resources where proven women leaders are given responsibility for executing the same. There should also be periodic evaluation mechanisms to take stock of progress.
·That awareness of the nation’s POCSO and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Act 2013 are implemented in Church institutions and parishes.
·That Church and State authorities take cognizance of the increasing revelations of abuse by people in power and authority in religious institutions and set up monitoring mechanisms that will stringently apply the country’s laws as deterrent to future abuse.
·That the CBCI takes urgent measures to ensure that the integrity of the Church is not jeopardized by the increasing instances of clergy sexual abuse in India.