Religion not above the law

The dehumanising phenomenon of sexual abuse has spread its tentacles in almost every known aspect of our social lives, cutting across geographic boundaries.
Religion not above the law
Representative image

New Delhi

However, when such an act is perpetrated within the haloed chambers of a place of worship, the implications are much graver and highlight the immunity enjoyed by members of religious groups for several centuries now. The recent ruling involving Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who was found not guilty on charges of rape has split the Kerala Catholic Church right down the middle.
Mulakkal, who served in the Diocese of Jalandhar had been accused of sexually assaulting a nun multiple times over a period of two years. However, the victim’s pleas had fallen on the deaf ears of church authorities, who had ignored the allegations for as long as they could. Finally, after the victim approached the police, Mulakkal was arrested in 2018, but charged only a year later in the aftermath of relentless protests by nuns, during which reports of a cover-up to protect the clergyman had also emerged. The case also gained notoriety as a key witness who was a priest and had testified against Mulakkal was found dead under mysterious circumstances in 2018. Similarly, four of the five nuns who had protested against Mulakkal had been shunted out from their convent in Kerala, a move which many believe was aimed at silencing their allegations.
Several activists, lawyers, members of the Church and nuns have expressed their utter dismay at the ruling, and said they will challenge the ruling in a higher court. Data available in the public domain has shone light on how the Kerala Catholic Church has steered clear of any calls for reforms since time immemorial. Since 2016, as many as 12 priests in Kerala have been called out for committing sexual offences. In several cases, these offences involved the sexual abuse of underage girls.
In fact, the snail’s pace at which justice is delivered on any such allegation was visible almost two years ago when the killers of Sister Abhaya, a nun from Kerala were brought to justice 28 years after the nun was murdered. The two convicted - Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy - had murdered Abhaya in 1992, after the nun found them in a compromising position. The awarding of life imprisonment to the two individuals was hailed by many as one of the little battles that had been won in acknowledging the crimes that had been committed under the cover of faith.
Echoes of such events are now being felt around the world. Last year, a major international investigation revealed that the French clergy had abused more than 2 lakh children over a period of 70 years. The revelation had such a far reaching impact that Pope Francis issued a public apology, expressing shame and sadness over the Church’s inability to deal with the sexual abuse of children in France, and offer a safe home for everyone. Ironically, just hours after the Pope delivered his public apology, two priests who had been charged in a case of sexual abuse in a youth seminary right in the heart of the Vatican between 2006 and 2012 were acquitted by the Vatican Court of all charges.
When it has been proven time and again that religious figures can also err, it is important that the laws of the land should apply to spiritual leaders and those associated with religious groups as well - if they are found to be involved in crimes. Also, parties with vested interests have often tried to shield institutions of a religious nature from such unsavoury revelations that are unbecoming of any progressive, modern society. The reason often attributed is to avoid hurting religious sentiments. But that cannot be an excuse for abuse to continue unabated. There needs to be a mechanism to safeguard victims and whistleblowers. But more than anything, the clear message that needs to be sent out is that religion is not above the law.

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