Court orders probe into bishop’s death

By Jose Kavi

Kochi, April 11, 2019: A court in Madhya Pradesh on May 11 ordered a police probe into a Catholic bishop’s death in a road accident almost four months ago.

Judicial Magistrate First Class Nidhi Neelesh Shrivastava, Pohari, district Shivpuri has directed the police to investigate the circumstances that led to the death of Bishop Thomas Thennatt of Gwalior and submit its report within a month.

The court order came following a laywoman’s petition saying that she suspected foul play in the bishop’s death.

The woman, Dolly Theresa, alleged the diocesan authorities have restrained her from receiving Holy Communion from all churches in the diocese after she filed the petition.

“I had complained to the nuncio and the archbishop of Bhopal about the restriction imposed on me from the diocese, but to no avail,” she told Matters India.

“Now I will send them a reminder in view of the court order and if they fail to intervene I will move court for appropriate direction,” she warns.

Theresa, a Catholic resident of Gwalior, in her petition claimed, three priests had traveled with the bishop in the same car that met with the accident but escaped unhurt. The car too did not have any damage.

The 65-year-old bishop was killed in the night of December 14, 2018, when his car skidded off and overturned.

According to the Gwalior diocesan officials, the prelate died of severe head injuries.

Bishop Thennatt was returning to his residence in Gwalior after attending the annual function of a Church-run school in Sheopur district. The accident occurred at Pohari, some 125 km southwest of Gwalior.

The injured prelate was immediately taken to the nearest hospital and then, to St. Joseph Hospital, Gwalior, where he was declared dead around 10 pm on Dec. 14.

His body was buried on December 18, 2018, at St. Paul’s Church Morar, Gwalior.

Theresa further said the police’s failure to register a case and conduct postmortem has further strengthened her suspicion that there was a conspiracy behind the bishop’s death.

She has also suspected the role of priests in the diocese behind the bishop’s death. The court has found merit in her argument and directed Pohari police to look into her complaint and submit a report.

Earlier on March 1, her lawyer Girraj Singhal told Matters India “we had approached the Judicial Magistrate First Class Pohri, district Shivpuri on January 24 seeking direction to the police for a probe into the circumstances that led to the suspicious death of bishop.”

“The JMFC in its order on February 4 dismissed the case on the ground of lack of sufficient evidence to substantiate the charges, despite photographs and other materials on record,” he added.

Subsequently, a criminal revision petition was filed before the first upper Session Judge Shivpuri on February 14 challenging the order of the JMFC.

“The special judge, after hearing the arguments and perusing the materials on record, quashed the order of the JMFC and directed it (JMFC) to proceed with the matter as per the law allowing the revision petition,” Singhal explained.

Before approaching the court, Theresa had approached the Gwalior Bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court as well with the same demand, her lawyer said.

The High Court in its January 10 order refused to interfere on the ground that she did not avail other avenues to address her grievances.

She subsequently approached the Pohari JMFC following the High Court order as the bishop had met with the accident at Pohari, in Shivpuri district.

She also complained to the Superintendents of Police of Shivpuri and Gwalior districts demanding a probe into the bishop’s death and exhuming his body for autopsy, but they refused to act upon her complaints.

Bishop Thennatt was the first member of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate, popularly known as Pallotines, to become a bishop in India. He was known for simplicity, humility and detachment from worldly things.

Pope Francis appointed him as the Gwalior bishop on October 18, 2016, when he was the parish priest of St Pius X Church in Nagpur archdiocese.

He was ordained a priest in 1978 by Bishop Joseph Fernandez of Quilon, Kerala.

He began his priestly duties as assistant parish priest at St. Vincent Pallotti Parish of Amravati in Guntur diocese, Andhra Pradesh, for a year in 1979.

He also served as the secretary of the archdiocesan commissions of youth and family and laity.

In 1991, he moved to Indore diocese as the parish priest of St. Theresa Church of Pushpanagar and director for laity and family and Small Christian Communities. Two years later, he was appointed as regional director for laity and family Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, a post he held for five years.

He had served as pastor in states such as the undivided Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

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