Kanpur, October 16, 2018: The “Me Too” moment seems to have arrived in India, with long suppressed secrets of sexual harassment tumbling out of the dark recesses of memory, to shame and shock the mighty – be they journalists, actors, sportspersons or politicians. Some would have us believe that the Catholic Church in India has also experienced its Me Too moment; with the arrest of Sriman Franco Mulakkal (I would rather not address him as bishop).
The parallels between Franco and MJ Akbar, Minister of State for External Affairs, are quite easily drawn. I have never met Franco, but I did meet Akbar at a party thrown by an office colleague at his flat at Pedder Road, Bombay in 1972. At the time he was probably with the Illustrated Weekly of India when that other self-confessed dirty old man, Khushwant Singh, was the editor. It is too long ago for me to recall if there was anything to cause a Me Too moment at that party.
The comparison between Franco and Akbar, however, is not to do with their partying, but with their response to the accusations levelled against them. Both are powerful men. Both have been accused of abusing their positions of authority to sexually harass helpless women under their control. Both have denied the accusations, despite prima facie evidence, and both believe in attack as the best form of defence. So both did not deem it fit to resign on moral grounds. Rather they went on the legal offensive against their relatively weak accusers.
Franco orchestrated support for himself, and by the time this appears in print, it is highly probable that Akbar will follow suit. In both cases the powers that be chose to maintain a deafening silence; that can only be interpreted as tacit support for, or a cover up of, the alleged misdeeds of the accused persons, thereby making them partners in crime.
I have a query here. Will Me Too be a moment, as portrayed by the media, or a movement? A moment is a flash in the pan, come and gone in the blinking of an eye, vanishing like an early morning dew drop in the harsh glare of the sun? A movement on the other hand is a sustained force, that has an element of continuity.
In the case of the Catholic Church in India, the Franco fiasco has resulted in a moment, but certainly not a movement; because no other victim has come out to level similar accusations, despite many claims that the problem of sexual harassment of religious sisters is endemic. The polemical question therefore remains. Is this just a flash in the pan that will soon fade from public memory, like the Abhaya case, also in Kerala, years ago?
Me Too, by its very definition, is about an individual. We Too (Hum Bhi in Hindi) is, in contrast, a collective expression. Me Too may be an unsustainable moment, but We Too has the potential of being a sustainable movement. In the context of the Church in India, We Too would not be about a personal thing like sexual harassment. It would, instead, be a collective expression of anguish, and frustration against acts of both commission and omission.
This sense of frustration was accentuated by the recent Franco Fiasco. The cover up, the obfuscation, the self-justification, the tacit support for the accused rather than for the alleged victim, the suppression of news in the hierarchically controlled media; all raise the banner of revolt at the deafening silence or complicity of the CBCI (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India). The only redeeming grace was the intervention of Cardinal Oswald Gracias and the subsequent very frank admission by the archbishop of Faridabad.
Not just the CBCI, all other recognized national Catholic organisations like the CRI, NCCI, CPCI, AICU, NCCWI, ICPA etc remained mute spectators, lending credence to the belief that they are mere lapdogs, not watchdogs.
But nature abhors a vacuum. So somebody, somewhere, must step in to bridge the gap or stem the rot. For the last four years, since the abysmal failure of the Indian bishops’ preparations for the Synod of the Family (a damp squib), I have been restless over the need to bring like minded people together on a common platform; to express the unspoken needs of the church.
Two years ago I had met Swami Sachidananda Bharati, aka Airforce Baba, a former IAF officer who has dedicated his life to reform in Indian society and renewal in the church. We collaborated for a Peace Seminar held in New Delhi earlier this year. We are now planning a gathering of concerned persons in February 2019.
Details of the venue, dates, costs etc are being worked out and will be made public as soon as they are finalised. The General Elections are also not far away, and their outcome would have serious ramifications for the Christian community in India, necessitating a We Too movement. Our presence in the mainstream print, electronic and social media is also limited. Our “spokespersons”, like those of political parties, tend to defend the indefensible, or are looking over their shoulders for a pat from their hierarchical bosses. How much longer can we remain mute spectators to these “developments” or lack of them?
Was it Martin Luther King Jr who had famously said that “It is not the deafening sound of the wicked that agitates me, but the deafening silence of the good people”? The word of God addressed to two Major Prophets has always spurred me to action. God says to Ezekiel:
“I have appointed you as a watchman for the house of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, warn them for me. If I say to someone wicked, Evildoer you are to die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked person to renounce such ways, the wicked person will die for this guilt, but I shall hold you responsible for the death. If, however, you do warn someone wicked to renounce such ways and repent, then the culprit will die for this guilt, but you yourself will have saved your life” (Ez 33:7-9). So silence is both an act of acquiescence and culpability.
The call of Jeremiah is even more strident, “I have put my words in your mouth. Look, today I have set you over the nations and kingdoms, to uproot and to knock down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:10).
Jesus’ advice to Nicodemus is also most apt. “The wind blows where it pleases, you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). When Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council he called for a new Pentecost, a new spring in the church.
In north India, where I live, spring is the time when several trees shed their leaves. Both Jesus and Pope John XXIII would have been familiar with nature. Without a strong wind the old leaves cannot fall, and unless that happens new leaves cannot spring forth. So we do need a gale force wind in the musty corridors of the church, to remove the spent forces like dead leaves, and to breathe new life into the church. Else it will end up as deadwood, as evidenced all across Europe.
I may here add that seeking the cleansing and renewal of the church can in no way be perceived as being anti-church. As I had said in a previous article, we should be pro veritas, pro caritas, pro ecclesia.
Among the topics that We Too hopes to address are:
1. What happened to Vatican II? – the non-implementation of its far reaching reforms.
2. Participatory structures in the Church – another glaring act of omission regarding pastoral councils, finance committees, Catholic Associations etc, as already provided for in Canon Law.
3. The status of women in the church – not just post Franco
4. Crisis management – totally lacking today
5. Towards an Indian Church – the need to be rooted in the local culture and ethos.
6. Evangelisation & Conversions – their relevance and controversies that surround it
7. Contemporary Politics – what is our considered response?
8. The role of the Catholic media – expression and suppression in the print, electronic and social media.
9. Our Collective Response – do we need a WE TOO MOVEMENT?
Those who broadly share these concerns and are interested in participating in this initiative (laity, priests, religious and bishops) may kindly contact Swami Sachidananda Bharati at firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone nos 8281874941/ 7709796805; or this writer at email@example.com phone no 9415130822.