Indian Church’s failures in handling sex abuse cases

Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) [Hong Kong]

January 17, 2022

By Raynah Braganza Passanha

Hierarchy violates both Catholic Church and civil laws in its inaction to address cases involving priests

The sex abuse case of a priest, considered a benchmark one in the Indian Church, ended in the conviction and life imprisonment of the accused last month. However, it is deeply distressing that the sincerity of the Church’s leadership was not manifested in its handling.

The allegations against 55-year-old Father Lawrence Johnson attracted the national Church’s attention as it happened to be the first publicly reported case after the Indian Church put in effect a Vatican-approved procedure to deal with allegations of sex abuse by Catholic clergy.

The priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay (now Mumbai) was accused of sodomizing a 13-year-old boy inside his parish’s sacristy on Nov. 27, 2014, barely four weeks after the Church announced its methods to follow the Vatican procedure to check the malady.

Church observers considered it a benchmark case, also because it happened in Mumbai, one of the largest archdioceses in the country and one led by Cardinal Oswald Gracias, a member of Pope Francis’ kitchen cabinet of C7 cardinals.

The case assumed special significance as it happened in Mumbai Archdiocese, a leading archdiocese based in the financial capital of the country whose Catholic leaders are often seen as the face of the Indian Church.

In 2018, when Cardinal Gracias was elected president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, the case assumed particular importance. The entire Church waited to see how the leader of the Indian hierarchy would handle the case.

Meanwhile, the city police arrested the accused priest in December 2014 and a special court dealing with sexual offenses against children convicted him on Dec. 29, 2021. He was handed down life imprisonment.

Five years since the allegation, we are yet to hear about the suspension or dismissal of the accused from clerical order. Mumbai Archdiocese says the priest was banned from public ministry soon after the allegations surfaced. Archdiocesan officials would say they are following a canonical process to act against the convicted priest.

Another case that attracted international attention concluded on Jan. 14 when a court in southern India acquitted Bishop Franco Mullakal of Jalandhar of charges of rape, unnatural sex and harassment. This case too draws our attention to the hierarchy’s response to complaints.

The complainant nun over the years knocked on several doors including the Vatican, the nuncio, bishops, a cardinal, and the bishops’ conference seeking assistance but only received silence as a response. The synodal call of mutual listening is a joke when one considers the Church hierarchy’s stance to abused children and women.