Barely two months after Pope Francis had exhorted Bishops all over the world to show zero tolerance towards crimes against children, a Catholic priest was arrested on charges of child sexual abuse in Kerala.

Father Robin, as Mathew Vadakkancheril had come to be known as Vicar of St Sebastian’s Church in Kottiyoor in Kannur district of Kerala, was arrested on Monday for allegedly raping a 16-year-old last year.

Vadakkancheril was arrested in Thrissur while trying to leave the country.

In his letter on January 2, 2017, the pope had begged forgiveness for the sufferings of children who were sexually abused by priests. “It is a sin that shames the Church,” the letter read.

Taking a cue from the pope’s advice, the Mananthavady Bishop, Jose Porunnedom, removed the accused from the office of the Vicar and suspended him from exercising his priestly ministry.

“The suspension and prohibition will remain in force until the accused is declared innocent,” read a statement from the Bishop.

The vicar’s proximity to the who’s who of the church had helped him get the coveted post of Managing Director of church-run newspaper, Deepika, from 2005 to 2008.

The latest outrage

The sexual abuse charges came to light after officials of the Childline in Kannur got an anonymous call, requesting help for the 16-year-old. “Upon investigation we found out that the girl gave birth to a child at Christuraja Hospial in Kannur,” a Childline official said.

The Peravoor Police, where a case has been registered, said the teenager had first testified against her biological father. “We realised that she was forced to testify against her own father,” said Sunil Kumar, Circle Inspector of Police. The young mother named the priest only after persistent questioning by police, he said.

The 22-day-old child has been handed over to an orphanage in Kannur. A case of rape has been filed against Vadakkancheril under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act following complaints from parents of the child.

The police claimed that Vadakkancheril had confessed to the crime during questioning. Later on Tuesday, the Koothuparamba Judicial First Class Magistrate remanded him to 14 days of judicial custody.

Cause for worry

An increase in child sexual abuse cases has given the church a huge cause for worry, forcing it to consider framing a protocol for priests and nuns who interact with children.

A special court in Ernakulam had given double life term for a priest, Fr Edwin Figarez, in December last year on charges of raping a 14-year-old several times between January to March 2015 in the priest’s home at the Puthenvelikkara Church in Thrissur district.

Fr Raju Kokken, another church vicar, was arrested for molesting a nine-year-old after promising her a dress for her first holy communion in 2014. The case is now in the Additional and District Sessions Court in Thrissur.

In 2013, Father Arokiaraj, a priest at the St Stanislaus Church in Palakkad, had raped and killed 17-year-old Fatima. The priest, who confessed that he had sexually abused the victim, was dismissed from the church but the incident was not reported to the police.

Sister Jesme, former Principal of St Mary’s College, Thrissur, said the church has become a breeding ground for sexual offenders. “Look at the case of Fr Robin. He abused an underage girl, impregnated her and forced her to tell the police that her biological father had committed the crime. Is he ashamed to call himself a priest?”

Sixty-one-year-old Sister Jesme has vividly described the sexual abuse and mental torture she had undergone while serving the Congregation of the Mother Carmelite as a nun for 33 years in her book, Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun, published by Penguin India.

“I would like to describe the church as an underworld. Sexual abuses are common there. A majority of the priests hold misogynistic views,” she said.

Sex objects

Priests consider women as sex objects, Jesme said. “I would blame the recruitment process of the priests for the deterioration in moral values. [The church] is not worried about the quality of the new recruits. Instead it wants to bring maximum number of people to the religious schools.”

More sex abuse cases would come out in the open in the coming days, Jesme said. “It is not easy to hoodwink the believers anymore. Truth will come out easily these days.”

Women’s right activist, Jolly Chirayath, said priests enjoy a life of luxury. “The church has got huge wealth and priests are enjoying it. Priests lack the service mentality these days.”

Churches should be considered as workplaces, Chirayath said. “Then it will be easy to deal with sexual harassment cases.”

The proposal to bring guidelines for priests and nuns would not bring any changes in the society, Chirayath said. “Nothing is going to change if we don’t change our behaviour. We should change our thought process.”

Human rights activist Jomon Puthenpurackal, who has been fighting the case of Sister Abhaya, said the church will eventually protect Fr Robin and has only denounced him for the time being. “The church spoke against him fearing people’s backlash. I am sure that it will help him fight the case.”

Sister Abhaya was found dead in a well in the St Pius X Convent in Kottayam on March 27, 1992 at the age of 21.

Puthenpurackal said many people told him that priests would not commit any wrong when he began fighting the Abhaya case. “Many priests find women as just sex objects. Little wonder then that plenty of sex abuse cases are being reported from different churches across the State these days.”

The Kerala Catholic Bishop Council deputy general secretary, Varghese Vallikkat, said the church had taken serious note of the case involving the priest.

“It is unfortunate that cases of sexual abuses are being reported frequently. If the situation goes on like this, the church will have to think about framing a protocol for priests and nuns who interact with children,” he said.