Mumbai: Priest sentenced to life imprisonment for sexually assaulting minor in church

The Times of India [Mumbai, India]

December 29, 2021

By Swati Deshpande

A special court on Wednesday convicted and sentenced to rigorous life imprisonment a Catholic priest Father Johnson Lawrence for sodomising a young teenaged boy in 2015, under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The boy was 13-year-old.

In December 2015, the priest then 52 years old was arrested by Mumbai police. He has been in prison since.

During the pronouncement of the verdict, the priest was present in court before special Judge Seema Jadhav who found him guilty of offences under section 6 (aggravated penetrative sexual assault) and 12 (sexual harassment) of POCSO.

Special public prosecutor Veena Shelar had examined nine witnesses to prove the case against the accused.

The Priest’s defence was one of complete denial. His counsel Avinash Rasal argued that there was no evidence against him and to demonstrate he examined two defence witnesses, members of the Legion of Mary who said there were six-seven persons present in the Church at the time to attend a meeting when the alleged crime is said to have occurred. One of the defence witness also said her minor toddler was asleep on the bed in the Father’s office where the alleged crime alleged to have occurred. Rasal also said there was no trace of blood or semen on the bedsheet or his clothes.

The FIR registered by the parent had alleged that the young boy would visit the Church regularly several times a week to pray and in August 2015, he was asked to stay back alone one day when he was allegedly abused. The boy, from an economically weak background, did not immediately inform his parents as he was afraid of repurcussions, the prosecutor said but had fallen sick and had to be hospitalized at a civic hospital, but his behavior at home changed, he appeared scared and did not open up when his parents asked if anything was wrong, said the FIR said.

On November 27 the family went to Church and the boy was again sodomised by the Father who asked him to take a box to his office at around 8:15 pm to 8:30 pm, and threatened him to keep quiet about it, said the father of the boy.

The child narrated what happened later that night to his mother, said the prosecution.

The defence counsel Rasal examined a police officer who had produced the priest after his arrest for the first remand to show that the initial statement of child did not mention the August allegation but the document filed in the chargesheet had the para incorporated. Rasal argued that it was a case of “fabrication of document”.

The prosecution examined a doctor as a witness, apart from the child who deposed. The reasoned conviction judgment will be available later.

“As the accused is convicted under section 6 of the POCSO Act, no separate sentence is imposed for the offence punishable under section 377 (unnatural offences) under Indian Penal Code,” said the order.

The Court also recommended the case to the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) for compensation to be paid to the victim.

(The victim’s identity has not been revealed to protect his privacy as per Supreme Court directives on cases related to sexual assault)