A few TV channels in India have started a media trial of five priests belonging to the Orthodox Syrian rite, who have been accused of blackmailing a woman for sex.
Amid the noise, and the sensation of finally finding some Christian ‘Wolves in Sheep’s clothing preying upon their Flock’, as usual, most TV channels aren’t really interested in projecting both sides of the story. What’s even worse is that some of the channels such as ABP, in their ‘news panels’ pick up unrelated and unqualified people to represent the ‘Christian side’.
In a recent show, Bijhan (Bihar and Jharkhand) regional secretary Victor Francis ‘represented’ the Christian side. Francis, a Latin rite layperson, from Bihar was certainly unqualified to comment on this complicated case, but he obviously couldn’t pass up his ‘five minutes of fame’. The result was that he was made to look tongue-tied and foolish, and hopelessly out of depth, as though he was ‘defending the indefensible’, while the anchor and BJP spokesperson gave free reign to vilifying Christian priests and the Church in general!
For our readers, here’s the gist of the matter:
The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church has suspended five priests following allegations that they sexually abused a mother of two children by using her confession secrets to blackmail her. It is for the first time in the 2000 year history of the church, that a priest has been accused of violating the sacrament of confession. The faithful are caught in this turmoil. What to believe? Sometimes the truth is far stranger than fiction.
The allegations may be a ploy to damage the reputation of the Malankara church. There is a legal battle on with the rival Jacobite faction over control of the church and its properties, in the wake of a dispute and division over allegiance to the Patriarch.
A spokesman for the Church says the complainant had a bad track record. He had once created a ruckus in the parish committee and tried to assault a priest. The congregation in the parish had turned against him following the incident, and he could be taking ‘revenge’ by raising baseless allegations. (But that may be interpreted as ‘victim blaming, though technically, the man isn’t a victim.)
While the husband did not report the matter to the police, politicians joined issue. Now it seems, the crime branch will investigate the allegations against five priests of Malankara Orthodox Church in Kottayam district of Kerala. The Director-General of Police handed over the letter of former chief minister VS Achuthanandan, in which he asked the crime branch to probe the matter.
Catholicos Baselios Marthoma Paulose II, head of the church based in Kerala, has removed all five priests, including one from its Diocese of Delhi, church spokesman P.C. Elias told media on June 25.
“We have received a complaint against certain priests. We do not know what is the truth. We will conduct an inquiry and take further action if there is any substance in the allegations,” he said.
The church has not revealed the identity of the suspended priests. (But the electronic media has!)
The scandal erupted when an audio clip of a telephone conversation, purportedly between the woman’s husband and a church official, went viral on social media.
It is alleged a priest had sex with the woman after threatening her with breaking the “seal of confession” to reveal some of her confession secrets to her husband. He allegedly video-recorded the sex act and passed the information and video to another priest, who also used it have sex with the woman.
The husband, a resident of Tiruvalla in Pathanamthitta district, named the five priests. According to the audio clip in the Malayalam language, the man claimed at least eight priests had sex with his wife, and he has proof against five.
The church, also known as the Indian Orthodox Church, is an autocephalous Oriental Orthodox church, one of the seven churches including two Catholic ones that trace their faith to St. Thomas the Apostle, who according to their tradition preached in southwest India in 52 A.D.
The church now has 30 dioceses, including seven outside the state and three abroad. The church allows its priests to marry and enjoy family life. The marital status of the accused priests is unknown. According to reports, three of the priests belong to Niranam Diocese in Thiruvalla, and one each from Thumbamon in Pandalam and Delhi.
The sexual abuse, it is claimed, started after the woman confessed her relationship with a priest in her parish that started even before her marriage.
The Audio Clip
The audio clip, which is a telephonic conversation between the man and another person, says that he confronted his wife upon seeing a hefty hotel bill in her e-mail account in February this year. Saying that he was raised as a believer of the Orthodox church and has lived all his life in purity, the man says:
“The first bill in the statement was my wife’s hotel bill where she stayed in a five-star hotel. When I confronted her, she said that she was being blackmailed by one of the orthodox priests into having a sexual relationship with him. Many years ago, before we got married, a priest had sexually abused her and was blackmailing her since then. During my daughter’s baptism, she was mentally upset about what was happening and so she confessed her ordeal to another priest, who threatened that he’ll tell this to me. Threatening her so, he demanded sexual favours from her. He even took pictures of them together and shared those pictures with a third priest. He too later started abusing my wife. They kept circulating the videos and now around 5-8 priests are involved.”
The man then goes on to name five priests from different Dioceses and says that there are more priests involved, but that he hasn’t been able to verify their identities. He added that his wife has not divulged the extent of the abuse, fearing that the priests would do something.
“I was told that maximum punishment will be that they will be suspended. That is not enough for me, I want them defrocked and no other Church should take them in. They should be punished so that no one else does this,” the man says in the audio.
The woman’s husband said he came to know of the affair after he found a room bill for a five-star hotel in his wife’s name. The woman spilt the beans after he confronted her with the bill, he said.
The man said he will pursue the case until all the priests are removed from the church. He did not go to the police as he did not want to defame the church.
He also alleged there was pressure on him from church officials and influential people within the church to withdraw his complaint.
Church officials said it was the first time an allegation had been levelled against priests misusing the seal of confession in the 2,000 years of their church’s history.
Father Mathew Abraham, chairman of the church management committee, said he cannot believe that any priest in the church would break the seal of confession.
“I don’t think anyone would do anything to destroy the sanctity of the Sacrament of Penance. Most of our priests are living with their families and leading a pious life,” the priest told ucanews.com.
He said it was difficult to believe that a priest would take a woman to a five-star hotel. “It is not easy for priests to indulge in sexual activities in the era of advanced communication.”
He suspects the allegations may be part of a lobby trying to damage the reputation of the church, which is engaged in a legal battle with the rival Jacobite faction over control of the church and its properties in the wake of the division over allegiance to the Patriarch.
However, he asserted that the church is committed to finding the truth about the allegations.