By Varghese Alengaden
Indore: I have in the past criticized the Church leaders for their many drawbacks — indifference, inefficiency, ignorance of socio-political context, not being prophetic, fear of adverse consequences, failure to be the salt of the earth, being divided in the name of caste and rites, not acting as good shepherds, being enslaved to colonial legacy and compromising on ethics to safe guard the institutional interests.
I am writing his because of the present turmoil in the church, especially the scandal caused by the allegations made against Bishop Franco Mulackal of Jalandhar that have led to much uproar in media and public protest.
Sexual harassment in the religious orders is a recurrent topic. Such stories are common when it comes to the godmen of all faith. Many were arrested and sent to jail. Sexual abuse has become a global issue and the present Pope has taken serious actions against priests, bishops and cardinals.
Public and social media are flooded by stories of sexual abuse by godmen of all religions since many years. What is sensational about this case is that the accused is a powerful bishop of the Catholic Church. For the first time a bishop is accused of abusing the consecrated women who were under his care and control.
The issue has become more serious for two reasons. The first is the delay in arresting the accused in spite of extensive investigation and the second is the delay in taking hold of the evidence from more than hundred witnesses. In the seven pages report submitted by the investigating police team to Kerala High court confirmed the genuineness of the crime committed by the accused. The media, human right activists and the public belonging to all faith are furious about the delay in arresting the accused. They believe that the police are being intimidated by political heavyweights.
The image of the Church was further tarnished when a group of nuns who were victims of sexual abuse came out to the streets to protest against the delay in getting justice. Several priests and nuns have come out in support of the victims. This is for the first time the distressed nuns are coming out on the streets to protest because justice and dignity were denied to them both by the Church authorities whom they revered and the police who gathered evidences against the accused.
Women in general and nuns in particular seldom expose themselves to such a humiliation unless they have suffered to the maximum. Throughout the centuries women have suffered innumerable atrocities and humiliation in the name of religion and God.
In this case they were exploited by ‘the drug of religion’ nurtured by the godmen who uphold the oppressive patriarchal system.Indeed it is heartening to see these nuns muster courage to stand up and face the consequences. It is a pity that many men and women who are ignorant of these realities continue blaming the victims for allowing themselves to be abused several times. Insensitive statements like “Why didn’t she resist or complain when it happened for the first time?” “Why did she allow it to happen several times?” are rubbing salt and pepper to the wound. This is an example of how a victim is further insulted.
The media and several activists accuse that the police of acting under political pressure. The worst part of all is the silence and inaction from the Church authorities. The institutional church and the mighty hierarchy usually come heavily on lay people who divorce in a civil court for unavoidable reasons. They are not allowed to receive sacraments in the church. Similarly people who don’t pay the church dues are debarred from all church facilities. There were cases of some priests who even refused the burial of the dead. Priests and sisters are punished for minor failures by the authorities without proper clarification.
Bishops and religious superiors apply the dogma of ‘infallibility’ to indulge in any kind of authoritarian actions. But if more serious crimes are committed by VIPs they are ignored. Often it appears that the rules and discipline are meant for the weak and junior members. The vows of obedience, poverty and chastity are only meant for those who are below the rank and not for the one who dictate such regulations.
In this context it is important to mention about the punishment the Church (Vatican) imposed on Bishop Isidore Fernandes of Allahabad a few years ago. What was his crime? As part of the ecumenical fellowship he participated in the consecration of a Protestant bishop in the city wearing liturgical vestment along with bishops of other denominations.
The Apostolic Nuncio in Delhi was prompt to send a negative report to Vatican and within a couple of days not only was he removed from his responsibility as the Bishop of the Diocese but sanctions were imposed on him. He was forbidden to offer Holy Mass in any church publicly, not allowed to participate in any of the meetings of bishops, not allowed to wear his Episcopal cross, ring, cap and miter. He was banished from his diocese and couldn’t enter there without the permission of the local bishop and nuncio who reside in New Delhi.
He had served as the principal of the biggest school and administrator of a hospital in the diocese before becoming the bishop. As a bishop he committed himself for the development of the diocese for 25 years. Notwithstanding the forty years of service as a priest and bishop he was removed within a couple of months before the silver jubilee celebration of his Episcopal consecration.
Though I wasn’t acquainted with Bishop Isidore during the incident, I decided to go and meet him personally and learn about the issue. I traveled from Indore all the way to Bowali village near Nainital in Uttarakhand. In contrary to my expectation I was startled to see his positive attitude. He was touched by my thoughtfulness to travel all the way to meet him and express solidarity in that moment of distress and isolation.
Though he was very popular among the bishops and several provincials of congregations hardly anyone contacted him after the sanctions were imposed on him by the Vatican. Suddenly he became a pariah and victim of false accusations. Every time when I asked him if over these years any of the bishops contacted him he always replied gently, “Father, bishops have lot of work to do in their dioceses; they are busy.”
After meeting and discussing with Bishop Isidore I visited Allahabad and other parts of UP to meet many priests, sisters and bishops to gather more information about the incident and verify the facts which led to his punishment and removal. Except a couple of priests who had personal grudges against Bishop Isidore all spoke positively about him. They never made any serious allegations against him.
His biggest crime was to attend the consecration of a Protestant bishop as an expression of ecumenical fellowship. Many bishops of the region felt that the punishment was not in proportion to the mistake. Yet hardly any one of them had the courage to speak up. They were tight-lipped to avoid any consequences.
Even after all this ruckus, without giving it a second thought I invited Bishop Isidore to come and stay in our community at Indore whenever he wished. After a few months when I insisted, he relented and stayed with us for ten days. We honored him as a bishop. The local bishop and other bishops from nearby dioceses came to meet him in our community. Later he started coming every year to spend a few days with us and participate in various training programs.
What surprised all of us was his positive and cheerful attitude to all. Not once did he ever speak ill of any bishops or Vatican officials. I have never seen a priest or bishop so loyal to the church traditions even after suffering injustice and humiliation. He always carried a Mass kit with him and never missed a day to offer Holy Mass. Even when we did not use the new edition of missal, he would bring the new missal always with him for the daily Mass in the community.
I met several bishops and archbishops both in UP Region and outside UP and asked, “What would Jesus do if He were here? Would He punish Bishop Isidore as the Vatican has done with the recommendation of Apostolic Nuncio residing in New Delhi?” All of them promptly said, “Well, Jesus wouldn’t act like this.” I confronted them, “Why don’t you write to Pope requesting him to lift the sanctions and include him into the college of bishops?” That would have been the ideal celebration of the ‘Year of Mercy.”
Hardly anyone showed the prophetic initiative to do so. These leaders who are called to follow Christ in His prophetic mission opted to be silent without knowing that silence against injustice is a grave sin.
The contradiction and hypocrisy is that a senior bishop with 25 years of committed service was punished with a humiliating sanction within a short time. Yet a young bishop, who is not only accused of rape and “unnatural sex” and against whom the investigation team has submitted an adverse report m to the High Court, is being protected by the church authorities. Why doesn’t the Apostolic Nuncio recommend to the Pope to ask the accused bishop to step down? Why do hundreds of bishops of India commit the sin of being silent? Is their silence an expression of solidarity with the accused? Is the Church afraid of more embarrassment and scandals?
Many traditionalists have accused the nuns who have lodged a complaint and reported it to the media. Why do those who accuse the nuns forget the fact that they had approached Cardinal George Alencherry, the Major Archbishop and many other bishops whom they trusted as good shepherds with their complaint?
The victims in their helplessness decided to approach the police and the media when they did not get justice from the church authorities. By their inaction and silence the church leaders have not only damaged the image of the church but caused a public scandal. They have failed to listen to the teachings of Christ, i.e ‘to settle the disputes within the family instead of dragging it to the court.’ Their crime of indifference is more than that of the accused bishop. Wasn’t suppression of facts a criminal offence?
The crisis, which the church is facing, is due to its leaders’ failure to follow the way of Christ. The spiritual movement of Christ is replaced with an imperial structure of political patronage of emperors and kings. Instead of following the way of Christ they are worshipping Him. Numerous devotions and rituals have become a substitute to the practice of values of love, justice, forgiveness and working for reconciliation.
With the introduction of rituals, priestly class took control of people and converted the way of life into an institutional religion to oppress and exploit them. Religion became the ‘opium of people’ for business purpose. This is true of all religions.
The impact of the opium effect is more on the poor and women. Women religious in the church especially the traditional congregations based in Kerala suffer the most. They are controlled and conditioned by the male dominated hierarchy and the women leaders of these congregations with masculine and priestly mind set.
The circular issued by the superior general of a major congregation recently directed her members “not to talk for or against this issue (rape of nun by Bishop Franco) or spread any message through WhatsApp or participate in any protests”.
The sisters who follow the prophetic mission of Christ should have the courage to take a stand as the first Pope St. Peter who said, “We must obey God more than men” instead of becoming slaves to bishops and priests. Priests and nuns are called to follow the prophetic example of Jesus Christ who lambasted the hypocritical religious leaders of His time.
The superior general is asking the sisters to pray without getting into action. It is escapism from responsibilities. God does not want us to delegate our job to Him.
The urgent need of the whole church is to repent and realize the prophetic call and stand up against all kinds of corruption, hypocrisy and injustice. The life and teachings of Christ should be the reference point of all arguments and actions. The Gospel of Christ should be above all canon law, dogma and structure.
Many lay people belonging to all faiths and walks of life not only condemned the accused bishop who abused the nuns but also criticized other church leaders for their indifference. They questioned the credibility of the church leaders by quoting the teachings of Christ from the Bible.
Let us not make an excuse of delegating our job to God. Nightlong vigils and reciting litanies will not bring renewal. God wants us to speak, write and act against all corruption, hypocrisy and exploitation without making excuses. Stop committing the SIN OF SILENCE.
Practical Action Plans to renew the Church:
1. Bishops should shun the imperialistic identity instead create a servant leader after the model of Jesus Christ.
2. Following the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, Church leaders should set an example by their credibility both in words and deeds.
3. As leaders of society they should read, study and contemplate on the social realities and get involved in the struggles of people of all faith.
4. As part of giving up the imperial life style the leaders of the Church should adopt simple, transparent and inclusive lifestyle.
5. They should shun the pride and arrogance of money, power received from large number of institutions.
6. The leaders should be available for people of all faith and take actions based on the life and teachings of Christ.
7. Bishops, priests and religious should stop copying the outdated colonial model of lifestyle and mission.
8. Include participation of women and laity in the decision making bodies of the Church. Clergy domination and autocratic ways of bishops should be discontinued.
9. All kinds of unethical practices should be punished without delay.
10. When bishops and priests face allegations they should step down and face the test of investigation instead of denying and holding on to power and post .
11. Appointment to the leadership positions in the Church shall be done on the basis of moral and ethical credibility instead loyalty to dogma, petty agenda of caste, region and connections in the Vatican.
12. Pope Francis has said that bishops, priests and religious should have the ‘smell of the sheep’. They should know the soul of India, integrate and inculturate themselves into its culture and ethos.
(Father Varghese Alengaden is the founder of the Universal Solidarity Movement of Value Education for Peace, an NGO centered on developing enlightened leadership, responsible citizenship, and promoting harmony among religions and ethnic groups. Alengaden was the Youth Director of Madhya Pradesh Regional Bishops’ Council. It was his work with youth that led him to build the USM and promote a culture of interreligious harmony and cooperation in India and abroad.)