Mired in allegations of rape and corruption against its top priests, the Catholic Church in Kerala has launched a television channel to spread “positive news”.

Shekinah TV went on air on April 28. The channel beams advertisement-free news, current affairs and entertainment programmes which its promoters claim are designed to spread “messages of unity, holiness, hope and knowledge”. It also airs church-related news bulletins at regular intervals and a special English bulletin at night. Shekinah means “divine presence” in Hebrew.

Currently, the channel is available only in Kerala but arrangements are underway to make it available across the country from August.

“The faithful are tired of bad news. Shekinah TV will soothe their nerves with good news,” said Santhosh Karumathra, the channel’s managing director. We will spread positive energy in the society

Karumathra is a lay preacher with Shekinah Ministries, an evangelical movement under the Catholic Church based in Thrissur.

The channel was inaugurated by Cardinal George Alencherry, major archbishop of Syro-Malabar Church, in the presence of Baselios Cleemis, major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Church and Soosa Pakiam, archbishop of Thiruvananthapuram.

‘Funded by the laity’

Kerala’s Catholic Church has received plenty of bad press since Alencherry was accused of corruption and Bishop Franco Mulakkal of rape last year.

Mulakkal, a bishop with the Jalandhar diocese, is accused of repeatedly raping a nun at a convent in Kottayam, Kerala. He was arrested in September, and is currently out on bail. He has since been relieved of his pastoral duties by the Vatican. The Kerala police submitted a chargesheet against Mulakkal on April 9. The charges include illegal confinement, rape, unnatural sex, detention of a woman, repeated sexual abuse of the same woman.

Alencherry stands accused of causing significant losses to the church by allowing a piece of land in Kochi to be sold for less than the market price. In June last year, the Vatican took note of the matter and relieved Alencherry of his administrative duties.

The media has played a key role in highlighting both these cases and ensuring they remain part of the public discourse.

In this context, Shekinah TV’s focus on “positive news” appears to be an attempt by the church to repair the damage caused by the negative publicity.

Karumathra, though, denied this was the case. He said the channel was launched not to defend the church but to “inculcate moral values among viewers”. It was merely a coincidence that the channel was launched in the wake of the allegations against the priests.

“I have been working to set up the channel for over three years,” he claimed. “I was struggling to raise money, secure the licence and set up a studio complex. The cases against Mulakkal and Alencherry cropped up only last year. So it is incorrect to say those cases triggered the launch of Shekinah TV. I want to reiterate that this is not a church-owned television channel.”

Bishop Franco Mulakkal was arrested last September and is currently out on bail. Photo credit: Reuters

The church has not invested a single penny in the channel, Karumathra claimed. “It is a fully laity-funded project,” he said, adding they have collected about Rs 28 crore so far. “Our contributors include doctors, engineers, businesspersons, daily wage labourers. They supported us to spread good news and inculcate values in the society.”

The channel, however, would let church authorities explain their side of the story in the event of unwanted media scrutiny. “For example, Shekinah TV would have given Bishop Mulakkal enough time to respond to the allegations of sexual abuse against him,” Karumathra said. “The media should publish or air all sides of the story.”

Shekinah TV’s chief patron is Andrews Thazhath, archbishop of Trichur. Joseph Kalathiparambil, archbishop of Verapoly; Raphael Thattil, bishop of Shamshabad, Telangana; and Samuel Mar Irenius, co-adjutor bishop of Pathanamthitta, are the patrons. All of them attended the launch ceremony on Sunday.

“They are all leading lights of the Catholic Church in Kerala, and Shekinah TV is blessed to have them as patrons,” Karumathra said while arguing that not much should be read into their association with the channel. “It is an honorary role. They will not act as a bridge between the church and the channel.”

The church’s spokesperson, Father Jimmy Poochakkat, did not respond to calls or text messages seeking comment from Scroll.in.

‘Not depending on ads’

Shekinah TV has decided not to carry ads so as to keep market forces “away from editorial affairs”. “We will not allow the market to intervene in our content,” said Karumathra. “Not depending on ads will help us stand firm on our ideology.”

In this, Shekinah TV is emulating popular Malayalam Christian faith channels Shalom TV and Goodness TV, neither of which run ads.

The ad-free policy will enable the channel to “remain accountable only to the laity”, Karumathra argued. “We don’t have to bend before the market forces thanks to our non-dependence on advertisements,” he said.

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