Should Church compensate former priests, nuns?

T K Devasia (Matters India) A few months ago, Pope Francis appointed a British victim of sex abuse by Catholic priests to a special commission established to advise the Vatican on child protection policies. He warned that the Church would face “big trouble” if it failed to take concrete measures to bring to justice those priests who are accused of molestation and rape. Despite that, no lessons were learned.

The Syro Malabar Church, the most powerful of the three Catholic rites in Kerala, has been embroiled in a scandal, with a nun alleging that a priest tried to sexually abuse her. But instead of taking action against the accused priest, the Church has turned the nun out.

The 40-year-old nun, Anitha, had complained of unwanted sexual advances by the priest while she worked as a teacher at the Providence Convent High School at Pachore in Madhya Pradesh in 2011. The convent authorities denied the allegation and transferred her to Italy.

When she returned in February this year, Anitha was denied entry into her parent convent at Thottakkattukara near Aluva in Ernakulam district. Her luggage was thrown out and she was asked to leave the convent. Luckily, locals took her to Janaseva Sisubhavan, an orphanage at Aluva.

The St. Agata Congregation – to which Anitha belonged – asked her to give up the nun’s robes, but Anitha refused. She asked the authorities to state the reason for her expulsion or compensate her for the service she rendered to the Church.

Finally the Ernakulam diocese, under which the convent comes, stepped in when Anitha threatened to go on an indefinite hunger strike in front of the convent in Aluva with the support of the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement, a lay movement against the problems in the Church.

Following a series of negotiations, the church agreed last month to give Anitha Rs 12 lakh to “settle herself in life”. Under the arrangement, she agreed to return her robes.

Several human rights activists have described the settlement as an attempt at a cover-up by the church.

A former nun who walked out of her congregation in 2008, alleging sexual harassment, characterized the money given to Anitha as a bribe. Sister Jesme, who rattled the Church by recounting her bitter experiences during the 33 years she spent in the congregation in an autobiography published in 2009, said the money was intended to make sure that Anitha did not speak out any more.

Reji Njallani, state convener of the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement, who mediated between Anitha and church, confirmed that one of the Church’s conditions while granting Anitha the “living allowance” was that she would not talk to the media. As it happens, repeated attempts by this correspondent to talk to her too came to naught.

People close to Anitha said she is living with her grandmother in her native place in Kannur district and trying to get a job to start life afresh. Her parents have reportedly refused to take her in.

However, the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement views the settlement positively. Njallani said it is a big victory since this is the first time in Kerala that a nun has been compensated after she left religious life. This precedent, he added, will go on to strengthen the compensation claims of hundreds of former priests and nuns who have left religious life, either willingly or on being expelled.

The organisation has already formed an association of former priests and nuns to press their claims. “Those who left priesthood and nunhood are leading a miserable life without support from their families or society,” Njallani said. “Most of these people spent their youth in the Church, which has gained materially from their work, and it is unfair to deny them a share of it when they leave.”

Njallani argued that the Church’s claim that it is serving God does not stand since its institutions are charging fees for their services. For instance, he alleged, the donation and tuition charged by “many of the self-financing colleges under the Church are more than what commercial institutions charge”.

Njallani said the Church cannot ignore this issue any longer since there are over 10,000 former priests and nuns in India, most aged over 50, floundering in life. A conference convened by Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement in Kochi in February to discuss the issue was attended by 613 former priests and nuns from Kerala alone, Njallani said. He said the new association will soon launch a nationwide campaign to demand living allowance for all those who have left the religious vocation.

The Church authorities have made it clear that the living allowance granted to Anitha will not have a bearing on anything or anybody else. Father Paul Thelekat, spokesperson for the Syro Malabar Church, said the settlement was reached on an individual basis and for several reasons.

“I met the sister after her expulsion and asked her what she wanted” Father Thelekat said. “She had two demands. One of which was to enter back the same congregation, which was a matter to be decided by her congregation according to their laws. The second demand was to get a sum of money. We have acceded to her second demand.”

He said the settlement was not compensation for any wrongdoing on the part of the congregation or the Church but the “generosity of the congregation” to make her settle in life after so many years of life in convent. He said the former nun had not complained of sexual harassment.

Father Joseph Chinnayyan, deputy secretary-general of the Bishops Conference of India, said it was wrong for those leaving the religious vocation to demand compensation since priesthood and religious life are not professions. “These are free and committed service to God,” he remarked. “Therefore, the systems of the church cannot be compared with trade union laws and other existing severance provisions.” He explained that the issue will be addressed as per Canon Law, which has provisions to deal with it in a “humane and benevolent” manner.

(T K Devasia is a freelance journalist based at Thiruvananthapuram. This article first appeared in scroll.in on April 9, 2015)

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