By Matters India Reporter
Kochi, Feb. 5, 2019: The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council has published a set of guidelines for the protection of minors and ‘vulnerable adults’ from sexual abuse and assault in the Church and Church controlled organizations.
Reporting sexual offence cases to concerned authorities, cooperating in the investigation, avoiding inappropriate physical contact with minors and abstaining from taking overnight trips with them, are some of the key points in the guidelines issued to church personnel in the backdrop of sexual assault cases tumbling out from within the community.
The recent allegations of rape and sexual assault against Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar had led to a massive upheaval within the Church.
Titled KCBC Guidelines for Safe Environment Programme for Church Personnel Connected with Institutions where Minors or Vulnerable Adults are Given Particular Care, the guidelines provide for defrocking of priests (remove a person from priesthood) who are found guilty of sexual abuse, and are found to be a ‘threat to minors’.
It was sent to Catholic presbyteries, churches, educational and religious institutions and houses of special care under the KCBC.
The document has been drafted as per the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) guidelines on the same issue, which were reportedly formulated in October 2015.
The guidelines have come on the back of serious allegations of sexual abuse inside the Church – including the rape and impregnation of minors, and rape allegation from a former superior general of the Missionaries of Jesus against Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar.
The nun had accused Bishop Mulakkal, the patron of their congregation, of subjecting her to sexual abuses several times between 2014 and 2016 at a convent in Kerala. The nun’s colleagues had staged a sit-in Kochi demanding his arrest.
In September last year, the bishop was arrested after three days of questioning by the Kerala Police and sent to judicial remand for three weeks. He’s currently out on bail.
A key KCBC official said the guidelines were prepared and disseminated to concerned authorities back in June last year and that the reporting of the rape case against Bishop Mulakkal was only ‘accidental.’
“We had already started the work on this before it (Franco rape case) happened. Meanwhile, it came at that time. The guidelines have been sent to respective bishops and dioceses. All the priests are well aware of it,” said Father Jolly Vadakken, one of the commission secretaries.
“The Pope has addressed this issue several times. This is part of the reformation policy of the Church,” he added.
One of the key guidelines of the KCBC reads: “Sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults are heinous crimes and grave sins.”
The bishops’ council stated that it has ‘zero tolerance towards sexual assault’ and that any such incident must be reported to church and civil authorities. A ‘high degree of caution’ must be applied in matters of physical contact between adults and minors and that such physical contact must be entirely ‘non-sexual’ and ‘incapable of being misconstrued by the minor or others.’
“No minor shall reside in any church rectory or other living quarters of priests…,” another guideline reads. “Overnight trips alone with a minor should be avoided. Do not take photographs of the minors when they are unclothed or are dressing,” one reads.
The guidelines also bar church personnel from indulging in sexually offensive humour and viewing and exhibiting any sexually explicit or morally inappropriate material in the presence of minors and vulnerable adults.
Along the lines of POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) and the workplace sexual harassment law, the guidelines speak of protecting minors and ‘vulnerable adults’ – however, there are some gaps.
The guidelines also talk about providing care and compassion to victims including counselling and other forms of support, and talks about the provisions in the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. While the guidelines do look at the issue comprehensively when it comes to minors, it does not address the sexual exploitation of women in the Church and Church controlled organisations.
The guidelines specify that they are meant for the protection of ‘minors’ and ‘vulnerable adults’ in Catholic presbyteries, churches, educational institutions, religious institutions, houses of special care and Catholic organisations. While a minor has been defined as a person below the age of 18 years, it also includes “…person who habitually lacks the use of reason.”
The definition of ‘vulnerable adult’ does not outright mention women in convents. A ‘vulnerable adult’ is defined as, “any adult who is physically, mentally or emotionally impaired, whether temporary or long-term, or is otherwise unable to function as a typical adult is expected to function.”
The guidelines also state that this is not just about internal action, but also about reporting to civil authorities, which is important to ensure that matters of sexual abuse are not hushed up inside institutions.
The document talks about the appointment of a ‘Safe Environment Director’ and a ‘Safe Environment Committee’, appointed by the Diocese/Eparchy/Bishop/Superiors/Head of the Institution. The director and committee must conduct ‘Safe Environment Training’ for the clergy, staff and volunteers in the diocese.
‘Church Personnel’ – meaning clerics, lay employees, volunteers, men and women religious and seminarians – have been told to follow these rules:
No viewing sexually explicit material in the presence of minors and vulnerable adults.
No sexually offensive humour.
No pictures of minors while they are dressing or undressing.
No engaging in physical, mental, psychological, written or verbal harassment of staff, volunteers or parishioners, and no tolerance if such harassment is witnessed by others. Harassment here has been defined as per the workplace sexual harassment law – and includes quid pro quo sexual favours.
Boundaries – physical and emotional – while dealing with minors.
Minors, unless accompanied by parents or guardians, are not allowed to stay in living quarters of priests.
No overnight trips with minors.
Church personnel are bound to report cases of sexual offences to civil authorities and cooperate with investigations.