"I am not saying every thing's perfect in the church as regards sexual matters. When thousands of priests or nuns try to live a celibate life in our society there could be failures. We cannot stone them for the allegations some people make," says Fr Paul Thelakkat, a spokesperson for the powerful Syro Malabar Church. Activists like VK Joy, secretary of Joint Christian Council, another pressure group of laymen, demand canon law to be replaced with a new law that respects human rights and democratic values enshrined in India's constitution. The priests should be allowed to lead family life to end "sexual anarchy in parishes".
Are some priests in Kerala, the southern Indian state which its tourism brochures describe as God's Own Country, after money, wine and women? The recent book, Swasthi (Hail), authored by Sister Mary Chandy, narrates four decades of her life in convents till she was "forced to leave for questioning wayward behavior of nuns and priests in monasteries". The book was released last month and was sold out within three days. According to her, young nuns respond to the sexual advances of priests and those who oppose will be forced out of the religious order. There are instances of nuns secretly bearing babies and committing suicide not being able to withstand the pressure. The 67-year-old now runs an orphanage, where she had given shelter to 17 children, relying on small contributions from the local community irrespective of their religious allegiance. Most of these children belong to impoverished tribal settlements in the hilly district of Wayanad.
Activists say priests exploit their religious authority to obtain sexual favours from nuns and lonely ladies among the parishioners and many violate their celibacy vow, which has little to do with spiritual purity but the offspring inheriting property. "In some cases, there're even pedophile charges. Widows become easy targets often leading to difficult situations to cope with," said ML George, general secretary of Catholic Laymen Association. "The scriptures say nothing about virtue of celibacy. Allowing them to marry is the only way out". Church authorities however dismiss these allegations as isolated incidents and swear that no such case came before them was left unattended to and prompt action taken. "I am not saying every thing's perfect in the church as regards sexual matters.
When thousands of priests or nuns try to live a celibate life in our society there could be failures. We cannot stone them for the allegations some people make," says Fr Paul Thelakkat, a spokesperson for the powerful Syro Malabar Church. Activists like VK Joy, secretary of Joint Christian Council, another pressure group of laymen, demand canon law to be replaced with a new law that respects human rights and democratic values enshrined in India's constitution. The priests should be allowed to lead family life to end "sexual anarchy in parishes". But the Catholic Church differs. "There are people who believe that celibacy is impossible and the so-called celibates are all frauds….and there are people within the church who believe celibacy should be abrogated for priesthood. I do not think lifting the law of celibacy will take away all sexual scandals," says Fr Thelakkat. ”Marital faithfulness and celibacy are two sides of the same coin of sexual asceticism. Church stands for a lofty ideal. There can be failures and we have to be merciful to those who fail. But in case of sexual crime the victim should get justice. The church will do everything for that". Sr Chandy's book is full of anecdotes which the church say are half-truths. In one of them, she saves a life in a convent while the 28-year-old nun was trying to stuff a newborn into the closet.
The priest who had impregnated her leaves the convent after all his efforts to induce her to have an abortion fail. "There are a lot of Abhayas in Kerala convents. Once I noticed a beautiful nun, who used to take the lead in all church-related activities, remaining in her closed room all the time. She's reading a porn magazine," she says. "Priests used to frequent the convent and most of the nuns have indecent liaisons with them." Sister Abhaya was a 19-year-old Roman Catholic nun who was found dead in a convent’s water well in 1992. Two priests and a nun were arrested on charges of murder and destruction of evidence 16 years later. The police concluded that they killed her as she found the three in a compromising position at night and protested. 'Raping fathers' In another chapter, titled Raping Fathers, she narrates an episode in which she hits a priest with a wooden stool to escape molestation attempt in his room while serving him food. But her superiors and fellow nuns accused her of trying to bring a bad name for the congregation. "They took the priest to the hospital on the pretext that he hurt in a slip. But I was treated like a criminal," she says. "Nuns enter these orders after giving over all her assets to the convent. They will not get it back when they leave. So they end up living there till their death. If one dares to take the challenge, she has to carry the stigma throughout her life".
In 2000, she left the Daughters of Presentation of Mary in the Temple (DPM) that she entered as a teenager (she was just 13 then). After leaving the traditional habit, she changed into sandal sari but continued to wear the cross necklace that she wore in her novitiate days. "If a priest falls for a woman, he should leave the religious habit and marry her instead of engaging in secret liaison," she says. Amen In 2009, Sister Jesme, former vice-principal of a church-run college, shocked the clergy when she left the order and published a book, Amen-The Autobiography of a Nun, which became an instant hit running into several reprints. The book is a graphic documentation of the sexual harassment she had to face at the hands of priests and attempts to get her admitted into a rehabilitation centre to prove she had mental problems. The 52-year-old quit the Congregation of Mother Carmelite (CMC) ending 33 years of her religious life. She's now active in social circles, including social networking sites like Facebook. She recently gave away movie rights of Amen, which is published in English by Penguin India. She is also a visiting faculty at many colleges here, concentrating on gender studies. The autobiography alleges that very few follow their vows and live austere life and her sexual trauma began right from her novitiate days. At a retreat for novices where she attended, she noticed the priest asking each girl if he could kiss them. When questioned, he quoted the Bible which spoke of divine kisses. In another episode, a nun forced her to have sex with her and she found out that she was a lesbian. "The options before those girls who leave the nunneries are limited, unless you are a trained professional with independent existence. Most of them go with drivers, electricians or any other male accessible to them," she says. Jesme continued to be a firm believer in God and she believes it's God who inspired her to speak out against 'devils in cassocks''. She is now busy setting up a shelter for wandering women. She has also authorized to donate her body posthumously to a state-run medical school in Kerala. Amen was followed by another more explicit account a year later by KP Shibu, a priest who deserted the Vincentian Congregation after 13 years as a seminarian and 11 years as a priest, got married and taken up a job in Doha. In his book, Here is the Heart of a Priest, he also talks about sexual anarchy. Exaggerated accounts? Sr (Dr) Regina's academic background is almost similar to Sr Jesme's but she decided to quit for a different reason. A professor of history, she left Franciscan Clarist Congregation ten years ago protesting the blind loyalty demanded by the superiors. She had spent 22 years with the order before calling it quits. Both Jesme and Regina had jobs in church-run colleges but their salaries were paid from the government exchequer. They now lead an independent life as they receive pension after retirement, which is a luxury for others. Regina's doctoral thesis was on cultural history of Kerala's Syrian Catholics who claims 2000 years of history.
It is believed that St. Thomas the Apostle landed here in 52 AD and established the first Christian communities in India. But Regina says the allegations of sexual anarchy are 'exaggerated accounts' of isolated incidents. She never had personally come across any such incident though she believes parish priests could be tempted to seek emotional support since they live alone unlike nuns who live in groups. "I thought professional engagement was equally important and I left the order to pursue my profession," she said. “I had taken vows in obedience, chastity and poverty hoping to serve the people. But the mother provincial demanded blind loyalty”. She walked out with the permission of authorities and she still works as a teacher. She does it ‘better way” than when she was 'leading a life of a slave' as a nun. She's now living alone in a rented house but she doesn't want to be in conflict with the church. “They felt that they had been appointed by God and had to be obeyed all the time. They transferred me at regular intervals to the institutions far away from the convent. When protested, they asked what difference does it going to make for those who had chosen this life,” she said. "Why we need a job and salary at all?” The working nuns need to donate all their salary income to the Provincial House which will provide the convents with allowances for food, dress, medical and other expenses. According to her, young priests and nuns leaving the religious congregations is not uncommon now. They pursue their profession but very few speak out against the church. She believes priests and nuns should strictly adhere to the celibacy vow and most of them do. "There could of course be aberrations. Everybody longs for comforts in life. After all, they are also human beings. But if they live like laymen what's the meaning in a consecrated life?" she asks. "Celibate priest always draws respect. If they cannot resist the call of flesh, then they should leave".
According to Fr Thelakkat, nuns have freedom to complain to any authority within the religious congregations or the local bishop or even to the civil authorities. The church authorities have to take action when such things are reported. "From the point of the situation in Kerala or anywhere, all I can say is when thousands of priests and nuns live in climate freedom there can be abuses…But the bishops can do nothing on mere allegations without concretely mentioning persons involved," he says. "They cannot be protective of any body. There are very strict instructions from the Vatican as well as from Conference of the Bishops. The associations of religious superiors can also initiate action from the concerned bishop or superior".
Posted by V.K. Joy