Implications of India’s Sex Abuse Scandal

NCR has exclusive inside coverage of India’s sex abuse scandal. Their headline reads, “Secrecy over clergy abuse standards causes confusion in India.” While NCR mentions a “recent upsurge in sexual abuse cases involving clergy in India,” it makes no attempt to describe or quantify that upsurge. NCR is mainly interested in documenting the Church’s secrecy and the reasons for it – and to announce their scoop in revealing those procedures.

The article notes that on March 22, a letter signed by 127 Catholic religious, theologians and feminists – more than half nuns -- was sent to Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India. It links to its earlier coverage. Apparently, priestly sex abuse has been a serious problem in India for some time. There was no official response to this letter.

According to Msgr. Joseph Chinnayyan, a document "Procedural norms for dealing with cases involving sexual abuses of minors," went into effect on November 1, 2015, after four years of preparation. But amazingly enough, the Church elected to keep it secret not only from the public but from its own priests as well. Msgr. Chinnayyan said that bishops and superiors were informed about the document, but “the two groups were given strict instruction not to share its content with others lest it fall into the hands of those who may not use it with discretion.” How can a copy of the Church’s regulations be misused? How well can rules be enforced when almost no one knows about them? I believe they were more concerned with concealing a blatant travesty.

Despite his concern for secrecy, Msgr. Chinnayyan gave NCR an exclusive account of the document’s procedures:

 

  • "If a case arises in a diocese or province, a preliminary committee will examine the complaint, and talk to the victim, witnesses and the accused.
  • If the committee finds "a semblance of truth" in the case, it will inform the bishop or the major superior. The bishop will refer the matter to the Vatican congregation. If Rome is persuaded an issue may exist, it will ask the diocese to conduct further inquiry.
  • A Special Committee for Sexual Offense appointed by the bishop or the major superior will study the case. The committee's term is for three years and it should have three members, at least one of them a canon law expert.
  • The special committee will reexamine the case, talking to the complainant, the accused and witnesses, and prepare documentary evidence to submit to the bishop or superior within 90 days.
  • The standards stipulate that the bishop or superior should show the final report to the victim and the accused to ensure justice and fairness. Depending on the gravity of the issue, the matter is again referred to Rome.
  • Penalties could be as severe as laicization of the accused. However, the standards end with No.1752 in the canon law: "The salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one's eyes."

 

What does this mean?

First of all, the procedure never notifies the authorities of any potential crime. Failure to notify the authorities is illegal in India, as it is in almost every country in the world.

The first step is a review by committee, which includes interviews with the victim, the alleged perpetrator, and others. In the event the committee believes there is “a semblance of truth” it informs the bishop, who in turn informs the Vatican. If the Vatican requests a further investigation, a special committee is supposed to complete one within 90 days.

Long before any word is received from the Vatican, all physical evidence will have disappeared. The procedure does not even call for a medical evaluation of the victim. Rape kits have to be administered as quickly as possible, within a couple of days at the outside. The Church procedure guarantees that this is not done. Furthermore, the crime scene is never examined, effectively destroying any evidence. These procedures ensure that hard facts will never interfere with the Church's judgments.

The separate step of notifying the Vatican is a farce. Since the 1980s, the Vatican has required that its CDF (Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith) be notified of all cases of alleged sexual abuse, and provided with the appropriate records. That is, the Vatican knows about the case at essentially the same time as the committee in Step 1. Waiting for the Vatican to request a special investigation is simply another way of obstructing justice.

Finally, after the Special Committee has reviewed the testimony and reached a verdict, both the victim and alleged perpetrator are allowed to view the report “to ensure justice and fairness.” There is no provision for appealing the verdict.

The entire procedure is based on the premise that the victim and perpetrator will tell essentially the same story. If the victim says “He raped me” and the alleged perpetrator says, “I did not,” then it is up to the Special Church Committee to judge who is lying. There is little question about who will receive the benefit of the doubt. The final point of the procedure states, “The salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one's eyes.” That means that priests - those saviors of souls - must have priority. In fact, even if priests admit their guilt, they should be allowed to continue in office so they can save more souls.

Conclusion

It is hard to imagine a greater travesty. Any expert would reject the procedure. That’s why experts were prohibited from viewing it, and why bishops were forbidden from talking about it. The procedures are actually criminal, since they fail to notify the authorities of alleged crimes.

The Catholic Church of India acts as if it never heard about Pope Francis’ Special Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse. The Indian procedures violate the templates it provides (New Vatican Site on “Protection of Minors”). The Indian procedures also contradict those adopted by the U.S. bishops, the Australian bishops, and the Irish bishops, to name just a few. I believe they violate every precedent. During the four years that the Indian Church authorities were working on these procedures, I am sure that Cardinal Baselios Cleemis kept the Vatican informed, and received approval for the procedures. The Vatican knew these procedures were a travesty of justice.

While NCR deserves credit for reporting on the Church’s sex abuse problem in India – unlike the non-denominational religious press and most other Catholic publications – their failure to comment on the drawbacks of the procedure verges on dereliction. This is further evidence that the Catholic Church is more concerned with protecting its priests and its image than it is with the victims or the well-being of its flock – not to mention justice and morality. This has been going on for over 30 years, and has been extensively documented. This latest travesty also highlights the cynicism behind Pope Francis’s proclamations of zero tolerance.