By Nirmala Carvalho
Mumbai, May 22, 2019: Mumbai police have been ordered to investigate accusations that Cardinal Oswald Gracias and two auxiliary bishops covered up an accusation of clerical sexual abuse in 2015.
The order came from a Special POCSO Court, which was established by the 2012 Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
Father Lawrence Johnson was arrested in 2016 on allegations of the sexual abuse of a child, but the family of a boy abused by the priest met briefly with Gracias on November 30, 2015, shortly before the cardinal was scheduled to leave for Rome.
The victim’s father told the court that Bishop John Rodrigues conducted an internal inquiry into the allegation but refused to share the details with the parents and didn’t report the allegation to the police.
According to the 2012 law, all allegations of sexual abuse should be reported to the police.
“Investigation is required to find out when and where the applicant, his wife and the victim met and with whom and gave what information and whether the said persons, have conducted any inquiry and desire having knowledge did not give information to the police as required Under Section Sectionv19 of POCSO Act,” the court document said.
Another auxiliary bishop, Savio Dominic Fernandes, is named in the complaint, even though he was outside the city at the time.
Cardinal Gracias serves as the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India and was part of the organizing committee for the Vatican’s anti-abuse summit in February.
In its statement, the Special POSO Court pointed out that neither the father nor any other witnesses had earlier disclosed any facts regarding the lack of reporting the offence by the three prelates.
“There was no investigation carried out by police in that regard, as is revealed from the reply of the investigating officer,” the court said.
The law prescribes a maximum sentence of one-year’s imprisonment, if a person in charge of an institution fails to report an offence by a subordinate under his or her control.
The Archdiocese of Bombay issued a statement about the case in February, after it was reported by the BBC in the lead-up to the Vatican summit.
The statement from the archdiocese said that the cardinal had immediately granted the request to meet with the family after hearing of the accusation, met the victim, the parents of the victim and the family friend, who alleged that Johnson had sexually abused the child.
“The cardinal tried to console the parents. The cardinal was to leave for Rome that same night. After the complainants left, the cardinal at once phoned up Father Johnson and informed him of the allegations made against him, and although Father Johnson denied the allegations, the cardinal removed him from office immediately and told him that he was not even allowed to celebrate Mass the next morning. Father Johnson wanted to meet the cardinal personally, but the cardinal told him that he was leaving for Rome in a couple of hours and to meet Bishop John Rodrigues instead,” the statement said.
The archdiocese said that Gracias immediately phoned his auxiliary and asked him to keep in touch with the family and to start an inquiry while Gracias was in Rome. Upon arrival in Rome, the cardinal called Rodrigues about contacting the police.
“At that time, Bishop John told the cardinal that the police had already been informed by the family the previous night. On his return from Rome, the cardinal made an appointment with a counsellor to counsel the victim, but he was told by Bishop John Rodrigues that the family had said that the government authorities were making arrangements for a counsellor,” the archdiocesan statement said.
Records show the family went to the police on Nov. 30, 2015, made the official First Incident Report shortly thereafter, and the priest was arrested Dec. 2.
The archdiocese added that many other attempts were made to reach out to the victim, but the family declined any help, and that Gracias “tried on many occasions to reach out to the family and the victim, but they refused to meet the cardinal.”
Mumbai-based Sister Arina Gonsalves is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and has worked as a consulter to the Archdiocese of Bombay in cases of sexual abuse of minors.
“The statement given by the archdiocese … gives the sequence of events and what action the Church authority took after the complaint was made,” she said.
“After four years of this case, suddenly this new angle is being studied. According to the press report, even the judge has commented on this,” she told Crux. “An investigation by the police will clearly establish the truth.”