Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) [Hong Kong]
July 21, 2023
Francis Fernandes is reportedly charged under stringent laws to protect minors and members of disadvantaged communities
A Catholic priest serving as the principal of a diocese-run college in a southern Indian state has been remanded in judicial custody for allegedly abusing a minor girl.
Police arrested Father Francis Fernandes, principal of Sacred Heart College under Shimoga diocese in Karnataka, on July 20 following a complaint from a girl, reported to be below 18 years of age.
Local media reports said the priest has been charged under provisions of the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act and the Scheduled Caste (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
After daylong interrogation, police produced the priest before a special court on July 21 and he was remanded in judicial custody for 14 days.
Offenses under the laws meant to protect minors and vulnerable groups are treated as non-bailable and the arrested can file a bail application before the court.
The complainant, according to media reports, belongs to the Banjara community, a nomadic ethnic group in India, and was a second-year student at the diocese-run college.
The Shimoga diocese, led by Jesuit Bishop Francis Serrao, confirmed the priest had been arrested and remanded.
Father Veeresh V Moras, its public relation officer, said police made a friendly request for Fernandes to accompany them to the police station on July 20, saying “they had to seek some clarifications from him.”
“They did not mention any case against him. We were shocked at his arrest and judicial custody,” Moras told UCA News on July 21.
We are “unaware of the exact charges leveled against him,” Father Moras added. “We have deputed a lawyer to represent him.”
The initial reports suggested that he was charged under the provisions of POCSO and the prevention of atrocities laws, he said.
“Father Fernandes used to be kind and gentle and we never ever heard any such allegations against him at all,” Father Moras claimed.
The police reportedly arrested the priest after a group of people from the Banjara community staged a protest demanding action against the priest in front of the local police station on July 20.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) in its biennial gathering in Bengaluru, the capital city of Karnataka state, in February 2020 adopted a resolution of “zero tolerance to sex abuse” cases in the Church.
The meeting was attended by 192 bishops. They said that the Church “will not tolerate any kind of sexual abuse.”
They also agreed not to shield any instance of abuse from prosecution by civil authorities.