Priest accused of child sex abuse in Gary decades ago may have continued working for years outside U.S.

By Meredith Colias-Pete
September 21, 2018

A priest accused of sexually abusing children while working in the Gary Diocese during the 1970s and ‘80s may have continued to work for years in ministries and schools outside the United States, a Post-Tribune review has found.

Last month, the Gary Diocese said the Rev. George Kavungal had six “credible” accusations of child molestation after an internal review. He was a visiting priest from India from 1978 to 1985, church records show.

Of 10 accused priests, only Ambrose McGinnity had as many allegations. McGinnity died in 2000.

Kavungal and two others are still alive, church leaders said. Officials only said he was believed to be in India. No laicization date was given for him.

Allegations emerge in 2002

The Diocese received its first known allegation against Kavungal in March 2002, church records show.

In April 17, 2002, then-Bishop Dale Melczek sent a letter to Kavungal’s order superior in southern India informing him of a sexual abuse claim received three weeks earlier dating back to around 1982, according to Gary Diocese records.

Where the allegation occurred is not known. Between August 1981 and August 1984, Kavungal was assigned to S.S. Peter and Paul in Merrillville, according to information released by the Diocese.

How quickly the order responded responded to Melczek’s initial letter is not immediately clear.

During a meeting in March 2007, Melczek met with the Rev. Provincial Jerome Cherussery who personally assured him that Kavungal was no longer in their ministry in India, the Diocese said.

Earlier this month, Bishop Donald Hying again inquired about Kavungal’s status, church officials said. He sent a letter to India dated Sept. 4 to verify that he was not a practicing priest.

By Sept. 6, Hying received a response with a formal removal date: Sept. 1, 2018. He is double-checking the date’s accuracy, officials said.

Kavungal ‘is almost blind’

A native of India, Kavungal first arrived in Gary in January 1978 as one of five priests from India under an agreement between their superiors and late Bishop Andrew Grutka, newspaper archives and church records show.

All were members of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI) of the Syro-Malbar Catholic Church, based in southern India.

None of the other Indian priests have been accused of wrongdoing. Kavungal was not considered a Gary Diocese priest and was “never under the direct authority” of a Gary bishop, church officials said.

Nevertheless, over nearly eight years, he was assigned to three parishes: St. Thomas More in Munster in January 1978, S.S. Peter and Paul in Merrillville in August 1981, and St. Mary of the Lake in Gary by August 1984, church records show. By November 1985, he returned to India.

Kavungal, now 77, is believed to be in poor health, nearly blind and living in a remote village, said the Rev. Walter Thelappilly of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate via email.

Church superiors said once the Gary letter was delivered, a Provincial Council ordered Kavungal to be promptly removed from his priestly duties. He has also been removed from a recent job at the Paalana Institute of Medical Sciences, a non-profit hospital in southern India.

Specific dates were not provided. The hospital’s website indicates he may have worked there as late as 2017.

We “had taken action against George Kaungal (sic) as soon as we heard the news from the Gary Diocese,” Thelappilly wrote this week. “(He) is removed from his priestly and public ministry.

He is almost blind. He cannot read and he is sick. He is taken complete rest in a remote village. We informed the Bishop of Gary Diocese about this,” he said.

They declined to elaborate on the nature of his illness or the village where Kavungal now lived.

An biographical page on the order’s website that listed extensive contact information including an address, email, cellphone and detailed work history appears to have been taken offline by Friday.

Attempts to contact Kavungal directly via listed phone numbers and a detailed email were not successful.

After Gary: ministries — and possibly schools

Despite accusations that would later emerge, Kavungal’s employment history shows he may have worked for as many as five Catholic-affiliated schools for children between 1988 and 2011.

From 1988 to 1991, his resume states he worked in two schools for children — first as a boarding rector, then as a “moral science teacher” at another institution. Between 1991 to 2000, it states he worked at two monasteries.

By 2000, he headed to Sweden.

In September 2000, he worked as a priest and stayed until January 2004, Diocese of Stockholm spokeswoman Kristina Hellner confirmed via email.

While there, a woman accused Kavungal of a sexual harassment incident “but did not want to go to the police,” Hellner said.

“The Bishop of the (Swedish) Catholic Diocese informed the CMI superior in India about this,” Hellner said.

By 2004, Kavungal moved to Kenya, where his resume states he worked for one year as director of the Mount Sinai School.

Aside from Sweden, the Post-Tribune was unable to independently verify Kavungal’s employment.

International calls to India and Kenya were often hampered by poor reception. Emails to five CMI-run schools in India and Kenya were not returned.

A man who answered the phone at Mount Sinai School in Kenya said staff there could not immediately confirm Kavungal’s employment history in 2004. When a reporter informed him of accusations from the Gary Diocese, the line disconnected.

Back in India again by 2005, Kavungal appears to have worked at another two religious schools until 2011, according to the resume. Email and Facebook messages to both were not returned.

Hying: victims ‘need to be believed’

When a priest is initially accused today, a church review board is called to look at the incident, a Gary Diocese spokeswoman said previously. For an accusation to be judged “credible,” there must be some kind of basis.

The Diocese of Gary said “credible is defined as when there is reason to believe that an allegation has merit, there is sufficient evidence that sexual abuse of a minor may have occurred and the complaint is judged not to be manifestly frivolous or false.”

If a case is found to be credible, the review board alerts authorities. Hying clarified the Diocese will notify the police immediately after learning of a sex abuse allegation and also encourage the victim to do so.

"The first thing is the church can never apologize enough to the victims of sexual abuse," Hying said. "Those stories need to be listened to, they need to be embraced, they need to be believed in order for healing to occur.”

Since 2002, when the sex abuse crisis first erupted in Boston, he said the church had set up policies that had helped shield children from predators.

Hying noted prosecutors in Pennsylvania could only charge two priests of 300 named, because the statute of limitations had not expired.

"To me, it says essentially the Dallas charter has worked. So, what we are dealing with here is the terrible legacy to what occurred previously to 2002."

"Obviously no system is going to be absolutely full-proof," he said. "I think the church has done it’s best in the last 16 years to create a safe environment for children."

The Pennsylvania grand jury report found over 300 Roman Catholic priests molested more than 1,000 children — and possibly many more — since the 1940s, and senior church officials, including a man who is now the archbishop of Washington, D.C., systematically covered up the abuse.

The grand jury probe was the most extensive investigation of Catholic clergy abuse by any state.

Its findings echoed many earlier church investigations around the country, describing widespread sexual abuse and church officials’ concealment of it. U.S. bishops have acknowledged that more than 17,000 people nationwide have reported being molested by priests and others in the church.

The Gary Diocese released its own list of 10 priests weeks later. It did not include the Rev. Raymond Lukac, a former teacher at Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, who was named in the Pennsylvania report.

Any victim of clergy abuse is asked to call Kelly Venegas at 219-769-9292 or Steven Butera at 219-838-8001 with the Diocese of Gary.



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