Wednesday , 12 December 2018

Trials for the Church

Frederick Noronha


In the past fortnight, one of the stories making news has been the issue of alleged sexual abuse within the Church. The issue came up mainly from Kerala, but this does not mean that other places are immune from such concerns. In today’s hyper-sexualised world, it is unrealistic to believe that men or women of religion (whichever religion) are somehow going to be immune from these trends.

Like with any sex crimes, the exact truth of what transpired is not public knowledge. The courts of law, with their own challenges in deciding on such cases, will come up with their conclusions in time. For the present, the truth of what occurred behind closed doors is known to two parties (and, if one is devout, to God too).

Sections of the media have been highlighting the allegation of rape and sexual misdoings against at least half a dozen Catholic or Orthodox priests in Kerala (including one bishop originally from Kerala but based in North India). The complainants have been nuns and laywomen. A former Catholic nun, Sister Jesme, an English professor and Principal of a college in Thrissur, had in 2009 written a book in Malayalam titled ‘Amen’ on sexual abuse and power struggles within religion.

One could blame the political orientation of some media outlets as being behind highlighting such reports. But that would be too defensive an approach. In the immediate aftermath of the news, there were some prominent community members who also crafted their own arguments. These could be seen as an attempt to keep space for those accused to wriggle out. This is unfair. When there is an illness in our body, we cannot hope to cure it by pretending it doesn’t exist.

Nigel Barett, the priest-spokesperson for the CBCI (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India) based in Mumbai, was more willing to underline the seriousness of the issue. It is in the interest of all right-minded persons to treat such issues with the importance deserved and deal with the same speedily and with justice. The name of an institution should not be sullied by the acts of a few nor by the unwillingness to act of those in a position of power.

In today’s India, where religion is often used as a tool to settle scores of a political or temporal kind, it is tempting to want to push the dirt under the carpet. In fact, during the discussion on this issue, the attempt to score points became obvious at some point. Some wanted the Central Government to be involved in the probe, and politics of Centre-versus-State is obvious in places like Kerala.

We have become experts in using women’s issues to point to the flaws of some other religious community, other than our own. The fact is that all those in a position of power have shown their ability to misuse it, and this should not be seen as an issue of X, Y or Z community, but rather the misuse of authority by those who have the power to do so.

Unfortunately, our bias sometimes shows. In Sreenivasan Jain’s otherwise interesting NDTV Reality Check programme, one of the women’s representatives went on to suggest that since a confession was misused by one of the priests facing charges, the entire issue of confessions needs a relook. This makes one wonder whether such spokespersons even know what they are talking about.

But again, this is no excuse for taking an ostrich’s attitude. Pope Francis has come out strongly to render justice, even if belatedly, to the Chilean church sexual abuse victims. This not only cleanses up the system and fights the problem, but it also sends out a message that such acts are unacceptable by the men of religion.

Even if the issue is becoming worse now, with society’s attitudes towards sexual relations changing rapidly, let us not pretend that such problems have not existed in the past too. At all points of time, we’ve heard of such cases. At that time, the tendency was to close one’s eyes and ears. Times have changed.

Jordan B Peterson, the Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto and a very popular speaker in cyberspace too, reminds us in his book 12 Rules For Life that we need to “clean up your room”. By this, he means that before we correct everyone else let’s place our own home in order. In issues like this, sage advice indeed.

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