The little child and the Church

The Shillong Times [Meghalaya, India]

August 20, 2021

By Joshua Rynjah

In recent days there have been many shocking events in the state which have created fear and chaos both in the lives and in minds of the people of the state. However, there is another shocking incident which has gone unnoticed or even if it was noticed it has gone ignored and it has not been given enough attention. This incident received widespread attention in Garo Hills, where it took place, but it seems that the people of other districts of the state or even of the state capital are not aware of it or have not given it too much thought. This incident is the sexual abuse of a minor girl by a Catholic priest, Fr James Paranathu. The incident took place on July 24, 2021 and the Priest fled after committing the crime but was arrested on August 11, 2021.

This incident is important in many aspects. First and foremost, it is a heinous crime against an innocent child, and the perpetrator must be punished as per law; it is the betrayal and abuse of trust placed by the child and family on the priest. The other aspect of this case is that it is connected to the large-scale child abuse committed by priests that has plagued the Catholic Church all over the world. In most cases the perpetrators are simply transferred to another country; they escape arrest, trials, and punishment but they continue abusing children and others. In most cases the crime is also hidden and never made public even when the victims and the children have testified to being abused. This has been observed in Kerala and other states in the country. It is to be seen if this case in our state reaches its logical conclusion as per law or if it will be swept under the carpet and hidden from the public.

The other point I would like to raise is that there has not been any public condemnation of this crime or even public appraisal of this case by the relevant government authorities, i.e the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR). The only government coverage I could find online was the press report of this crime given by the East Garo Hills SP and the demand for an Action Taken Report given the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to the SP of the concerned district. (Once again this is only an online mention of this request by the NCPCR so I cannot verify it from the State Government or the SCPCR).

A disturbing fact that I came across is that the accused Priest, Fr James Paranathu, is a member of the Juvenile Justice Board of Meghalaya, and he represents South Garo Hills and by default he is also a member of the State Childline Advisory Board of Meghalaya. I wonder if his membership in such government appointed committees has any connection to the lack of state government appraisal on the criminal case and lack of coverage of this disturbing crime. Furthermore, there are other members of the same church who are also part of the various government committees that he is part of and once again I do not know if this has anything to do with the lack of government or public coverage of this crime. (These facts are available online from the state government websites).

Many organisations, religious and secular, and many religious members of different faiths from Meghalaya had publicly condemned the death of Father Stan Swamy while in custody. But there seems to be a lack of public condemnation in Meghalaya of this crime of child abuse and a lack of public support for the child and the family. I think the public deserve to know the stance of the Catholic Church with regards to this case of child abuse by a member of its faith. The Congregation of Christian Brothers in India (CCBI) made its stance clear in the sexual abuse accusations levied against its members in 2018 in Meghalaya. At that time the CCIB had instituted an internal inquiry into the accusations, but the findings are yet to be made public. I have read many enlightening articles, published in The Shillong Times, written by religious members of the church in which they highlighted important issues ranging from education to culture to politics and militancy. I hope that they will also enlighten the public on this heinous crime that has taken place.

The final point that I would like to make is that this case is also related to the current affairs of militancy that is taking place in Meghalaya. At present we have one surrendered HNLC leader who has been booked under POCSO and is awaiting sentencing. I hope that the judicial system in its wisdom will serve justice to the minor who suffered at his hands and also spare future generations of minors from the same fate. It is to be noted that this HNLC surrendered leader has not faced any other legal charges of murder, extortion, kidnapping, terrorism etc which were related to his activities in the banned terrorist organization. This absence of legal persecution of crimes is part of the ‘Militants Surrender Package’. This surrendered leader of HNLC is being tried in court solely under POCSO i.e as a child rapist and the SCPCR filed two FIRs under POCSO with regards to his crime as a child rapist. (This information is also available in the public domain.)

It is not yet known publicly if Fr James Paranathu will be tried under POCSO. I have yet to come across any public government notification from the SCPCR or State Social Welfare Department on the same. This is my humble observation. But I also want to strongly put forth one point that in both cases of the paedophile priest and the paedophile militant, the innocence of children has been abused, the suffering of children is before us, the future life of children is at stake. If we fail them now then we betray them; we betray justice; we betray ourselves; our beliefs, our conscience and our future generation will be watching and observing how leaders and elders of our society decide on the fate of the innocent.