“Later, I’m taken to the priest’s room for coffee. While I’m having coffee sitting on the cot, the only place in the room to sit, he comes and embraces me hard, almost suffocating me. When I struggle to escape from his clutches, he squeezes my breasts and asks me to show them to him. ‘Have you seen a man?’ Stunned, I shake my head ‘no’. In no time, he undresses himself.”
Sister Jesme in her book Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun
“The convents and nunneries are being converted into brothels. The priests have sex with the nuns at night in these convents. Because of these acts, the chastity of the priests and nuns has come under suspicion. Their love for God has shrunk…some of the clergy protect their chastity by watching pornography and reading pornographic material. They lose themselves in this habit. These books and DVDs are kept in secret places and can’t be found easily.”
Father Shibu Kalamparambil in his memoir Oru Vaidikante Hrudayamitha (The Heart of a Priest)
“The cry of a baby came from the bathroom of one of the inner rooms along with the sobs of a woman. We used our might to force open the bathroom door and what we saw would break anyone’s heart. A nun who had given birth to a child was pushing the head of the baby into the closet. The bathroom was filled with blood. The legs of the child, which were sticking out of the closet, were kicking for life.”
Sister Mary Chandy in her autobiography Nanma Niranjavale Swasthi(Peace to the One filled with Grace)
On the gentle slopes of Pulpally, Wayanad, where the Naxal movement once sent terror into the hearts of the land-owning gentry, a lone ex-nun, Sister Mary Chandy, is raising the hackles of the Catholic church. Her autobiography, Nanma Niranjavale Swasthi, a no-holds-barred account of her life in the convent, is littered with pregnant nuns and wayward priests. The 67-year-old Sister’s memoirs comes a good 14 years after she walked out of the congregation of the Daughters of Presentation of Mary in Chevayur, Kozhikode, in north Kerala. The Church was quick to proclaim that Sister Mary was never a nun in any of their convents and asked the laity in Wayanad not to associate with her.
So what happened after she saw the nun trying to kill her newborn baby in a convent in Mananthavady in Wayanad, as she has described in autobiography? “After I broke open the door with the help of another nun, I grabbed the child and held it to my chest. I thought I was doing the right thing but the sisters turned against me. I want to know why. In a previous incident, when I hit a priest on his head with a stool when he tried to grab me, the nuns sympathised with the priest. From then on, I was watched carefully.” After 40 years, Sister Mary fled the convent life.
Mary Chandy’s book has many more such harrowing tales. Like the nun who had tried to commit suicide many times over telling her of priests coming to the convent well past midnight and taking nuns out to the nearby schools. When this nun was called, she would not open the door. She was terrified the priests would break down the door and come for her. She said she hated this life of fear and wanted to end it. In one chapter, Mary Chandy recounts how porn magazines and CDs are commonplace among the priests. In one instance, she says a young nun came to her crying as another senior nun was forcing her to watch these videos with her. Elsewhere, Mary describes feast days in the seminaries when wine flows freely and there is dancing and much else. Once a father asked her to join in the revelries saying life is meant to be enjoyed. When she refused, he threatened her with dire consequences.
Tell-all memoirs are not new in Kerala, nor are church scandals. The Sister Abhaya murder case (1992) has still not seen closure and in the last five years there have been three other cases of alleged nun ‘suicides’. But a nun coming out, writing an autobiography, warts and all, was a first even for Kerala. Sister Jesme’s autobiography three years ago caused quite a stir and embarrassed the church no end. Following close behind was Father Shibu Kalamparambil’s effort in 2010, which described in excruciating detail the depraved lives that many priests and nuns led. And now comes Sister Mary Chandy’s memoir, about nuns who got pregnant by priests and aborted foetuses and other such horror stories.
Noted writer and feminist Sara Joseph, whose novel Othappu incidentally explores the life of a nun who leaves the convent, says, “Most of the nuns and priests suffer in silence for suffering is a quality that they are conditioned to accept as a virtue. What you see here is the expression of the individual’s conflict with the establishment. They did not have the courage till now to take on the establishment but now they are openly questioning it.” Joseph Pullikunnel, editor ofHosanna and director of the Indian Institute of Christian Studies, says he hasn’t heard anything like this against the Catholic church, in such an open manner, ever before. “Perhaps the church was ‘whitewashing’ itself,” he says hesitantly.
Ex-MP and commentator Dr Sebastian Paul is a bit more unabashed about the sociological implications of these revelations: “These autobiographies have become bestsellers but the allegations they make have not been publicly debated. So there is not much impact on the organisation. The Catholic Church is a highly centralised organisation and there is very little criticism happening within.”
So will a soon-to-be-released film, aptly titled Father, Son and Holy Ghost, on the hardships and dilemmas faced by nuns, put things in perspective? “The Church is traditionally patriarchal. I have explored the lives of two nuns in a nunnery in my film and have touched on various aspects, including homosexuality and abortion,” says director T. Deepesh.
That doesn’t sound like things are going to get better. Father Paul Thelakat, spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, says the fathers and nuns who have left the order and are writing books now are the ones who could not cope with the spiritual life. As he puts it, “If one cannot stay celibate, it is better to get out, marry and live happily. One is called to a difficult way of life; it needs an ascetic’s will to live a life of celibacy happily. It is always better to marry than to ‘burn’ mentally. I do not appreciate those who make a hue and cry of something they fail to live up to and then blame others for their failures. It is too naive to say, ‘since I could not, nobody can’.”
Kerala, incidentally, has now around 50,000 priests and nuns. And, incredibly, there are about 1,35,000 of them outside the state, serving in various institutions in India and abroad. Malayalis constitute a sizeable 15 per cent of the world’s Catholic priests and nuns. For the past few decades, their strength has been growing while the reverse is the case in the West. Brother Mani Mekkunnel, national secretary of the Conference of Religious India, points out that one cannot disregard the importance of Catholic institutions and the yeoman’s service they do to society. He feels the media picks on stray incidents and “unsubstantiated accounts” to judge the entire edifice of the Church and millions of its devout followers. “Why don’t you focus on the hundreds and thousands of priests and nuns who are living for a noble cause? Today, English education is synonymous with convent education. Catholic institutions have contributed in an immense way to India’s economic growth. Why not highlight that?”
Sara Joseph too stresses the unsubstantiated clause, saying if these writers want to be taken seriously they must reveal names. “Only if they are exposed can they be questioned,” she says. Take, for instance, Sister Mary’s book. It takes no names nor are dates clearly mentioned. Fr Stephen Mathew, director of Neethivedi, an NGO in Wayanad, points out, “We are suspicious because they haven’t revealed everything. A small minority may be behaving like this…but it is not good to generalise.”
The Church’s critics, though, offer a different view. They feel even if it’s only a handful of priests and nuns who have spoken out, it’s still a brave effort as it is unthinkable for the majority to speak against the strict order. There is both fear and subservience. Those who dare to leave this cloistered life are often not accepted by even their family and are ostracised by society. And most don’t even have a place to stay.
“Judas! Fallen Angel! Mad! These are some of the epithets being hurled my way by the church,” says Sister Jesme, 56, a former principal of St Mary’s College, Thrissur, fully at ease in a pair of red tights and a black T-shirt, enjoying her freedom in her tiny flat in Guruvayur. “I am foisted as an example to quell dissidents within the nunneries and seminaries. They preach that I have been disowned by my family and by the Church and the same would befall anyone who dares to be another Sr Jesme.” Fr Shibu says his parents were threatened by the Church. They were even told that they would not be buried in the church cemetery if they accepted him back home.
Curiously, this comes at a time when the Vatican itself is under attack. A tell-all bestseller,Sua Santita, has outed confidential personal letters between the Pope and his associates revealing many embarrassing details. Last month, the head of the Vatican bank was sacked on money-laundering charges. Many connected with the Church say the kind of depravity prevalent among the priests and nuns in Kerala and abroad is because of the arcane rules and practices. This perhaps is the time to usher in some much-needed reforms in the Catholic Church. As Dr Valson Thampu, principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi, puts out, “Every institution stands in need of continual reform. What is not reformed or renewed is headed for death. Only those who are spiritually insensitive will resist reform.” So will the Church let more light into its pews or wait for another book by one of its own to rake up another scandal?
The canon law and the Catholic Church say the professed people have no right to sue the Church. It took six brave sisters of Little Flower Convent, Narakkal, in Ernakulam district, to prove it otherwise. They created history of sorts when they sued a Syro-Malabar bishop of the Ernakulam diocese and the priest of St Mary’s Church for criminal intimidation and forgery.
In the normal course, the sisters would have had to take up their problems with the ecclesiastical forums and, under the precept of obedience, listen to them. What made the sisters take this drastic step? The sisters run two schools and a poor home on three acres of land in Narakkal. From the late 1930s, successive parish priests of St Mary’s church had been helping them to manage the school. The sisters knew the priests collected money illegally as donations but they kept quiet for awhile. In 1971, unknown to the sisters, the priest of St Mary’s church forged documents and transferred the management of the Little Flower School to the church. Then, after over 30 years, in 2007, the sisters were asked to shift their second school, St Joseph’s, to another location. They refused and filed a complaint with the department of education and were allowed to keep the school. But this riled the priests. Soon hoodlums, instigated by them, began harassing the sisters. They were not allowed into church, some of them were roughed up, and in one incident, were held hostage by over a hundred men. The sisters could not bear it anymore and sued the church. The lower court ruled in their favour but it has been appealed. Sister Annie Jaise says, “Traditionally, the CMC sisters, brides of Jesus, are quiet…but we had to stand up for the truth.”
Sixty-seven-year-old Sister Mary Chandy walked out of the Congregation of the Daughters of Presentation of Mary in Chevayur, Kozhikode, 14 years ago. She wrote her autobiography,Nanma Niranjavale Swasthi (Peace to the One Filled with Grace), in April 2012. Excerpts from an interview:
What did you do after you left the convent?
I only had the clothes that I was wearing. I did not have any money. I remember envying men for they can sleep at night under a tree but a woman cannot do that. I would visit houses and ask for donations. My dream was to open an orphanage and look after unwanted children.
Is there one incident that made you quit the order?
There are so many incidents that hurt me. After I left the convent, I went through many trials and tribulations. It has been a long journey outside.
Both the priests and nuns drink wine and foreign liquor. When the priests drink, what spews from their mouths is absolute filth.
The Church says that you were only a cook for a brief period and not a nun in the convent?
If that is so, why have they kept my baptism certificate? It is now in their hands to prove I was not a nun.
What you say about the priests…does it hold for the majority of them?
No, there are many good priests and nuns who do a lot of good work. But then there are also the bad ones. My advice to young Catholic girls is to not to go for counselling or confession to the priests.
Why did you decide to write the book?
I had aired my views about the sexual misconduct of priests and financial irregularities many times but they were not willing to correct themselves. So I wrote this book and for four years I showed it to near and dear ones and to those inside the Church. They advised me not to publish it, they said it would be catastrophic. They kept saying that things will be corrected but they never were so I published my book.
What is the Church establishment’s response when a priest makes a complaint?
The complaints are dealt with by the bishops and they influence the laity. If a woman among the laity becomes pregnant because of a priest or a bishop, they build houses or give money to them and hush it up.
What happens when a nun gets pregnant?
A life is not born in the church. When it comes to the nuns, they either make her abort the child or she is sent out of the church. If the nun tries to take it up, then she is ostracised by society.
What about the financial irregularities?
Financial irregularities are rampant. The priest collects money in the name of reconstruction of the church. The laity who come to church donate in good faith. But some of the priests, they never reveal the exact amount to the parishioners…they take their share and hand over the remaining to the church.
‘Let Not The Sins Of A Few Vest Upon The Church’
Rejoinder to all of the above by John Dayal
It is no consolation that the media also covers the sexual peccadilloes of Hindu savants including Shankaracharyas and even those who think of themselves as avatars of God. And while sex and sexuality have been much discussed within the Church and outside in the wake of the crisis in Ireland, Germany, the UK and the US, I must admit it came as a great shock to the Church and to ordinary Christians when Outlook in its July 23, 2012, edition ran a cover with the lurid headline, ‘Sex Scandal and the Church’, with the publicity photograph of a rather bad actress playing a nun in what promises to be a salacious film, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
Patently, it is no longer a matter of hushed rumours or jokes in seminaries and lay meetings. Morals and morality amongst priests and nuns is cause for deep concern. Though small and perhaps marginal at present, it may grow to threaten the Church in the 21st century if urgent remedial action is not taken. A state of denial will not do, nor a conspiracy of silence in a highly structured, hierarchical Church. It is also not a problem for the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church alone, or of the Latin Catholic Church. Protestant, Evangelical and even Pentecostal churches, which do not enforce celibacy in the clergy like the Catholic church does, grapple with their own demons of corruption and moral turpitude.
Self-appointed protectors of the Church in some places have raised the bogey of persecution by the media. They see in it an outrage and a conspiracy. Some senior Catholic and Protestant bishops, including contemporary thinkers such as Bishop Joab Lohara of a Methodist Church denomination, also point out that the magazine expose comes at a time when the Indian right-wing and fundamentalist groups have been mounting a campaign against the Church. A look at the Organiser and Panchajanya, official organs of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is evidence of this. Sanghi trolls are on my neck on my Twitter account.
The Church is indeed under sustained attack, and persecution rages, specially in states such as Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, even Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. The body politic and governments at the Centre and in the states show an increasing tendency to put curbs on the Church as a political strategy to curry favour with the majority votebank. Witness the increasing clamour for anti-conversion laws in several states. Even in Maharashtra and other states where there is no anti-conversion law, pastors are routinely harassed by the police and civil administration, accused of trying to convert people. The Union government does not give visas to internal guests of the Church. The denial of constitutional rights to Dalit Christians and the utter miscarriage of justice to the victims of the violence in Kandhamal in 2007 and 2008 are a case in point. It does not matter which political party rules—even the Congress governments are guilty. The BJP governments, of course, lead the pack.
We are not responding with references to Mother Teresa whose love for the poor puts her in the list of top 10 Indians after Mahatma Gandhi. Or to St Stephen’s and Loyola Colleges or the Vellore Christian Medical College. But it is proper to remind the Indian people of the work done by missionaries, priests, nuns and others. This is not to claim any special dispensation, or even as a boast, but just as a plain reminder, as a duty done to the homeland and its people. A part of the calling that any good Christian, following in the footsteps of Christ, would do. It would also be important to remind the media in general and Outlook in particular that sensationalism can tarnish the image of communities and institutions, and that the sins of a few ought not to be vested upon the rest of the Church. The damage has been done, and a mere apology alone won’t do. Perhaps we need a future cover on this silent but industrious minority whose wealth isn’t in the steel or diamond industries but in the smile of its fellow citizens.
But the Church too has to take steps. A group of Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches has come together to address issues of corruption and alienation of property as evil not just under the Indian Penal Code but more so in the eyes of God. Church leaders must accept that such things happen, though not in the alarming manner Outlook’s cover made it seem. We ought to analyse the reasons, and it cannot be just as simple as celibacy and ‘clericality’ as being the root cause of all sexual crimes. In the big wide world, married men rape, some of them rape little children. Some of them are ministers, politicians, scientists, policemen, artistes and journalists. This holds true among Muslims, Buddhists and, most of all, Hindus, because of the sheer large numbers, as several TV programmes have shown. Some may have forgotten that the Weekly and Blitz, now defunct, did cover stories on the late Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi, accusing him of homosexuality. It is besides the point that its editor, R.K. Karanjia, later became a bhakta of the godman.
I mention these to assure the hierarchy they are not an exception. The exposition in the West by media, including Catholic journals, over the last few years of paedophilia and child abuse has made the state apparatus intervene. But the Church hierarchy has to take its decisions in India. It needs authentic data for this. Former chief justice of India S.P. Bharucha has famously said that 20 per cent of the Indian judiciary is corrupt. Anna Hazare says every politician is corrupt, including the new President of India. I know of many journalists who are very corrupt. We expect zero tolerance in the Church, but priests too are human beings and the temptations of the flesh can be strong.
Fr R.S. Pinto responded to my intervention in a Google group, pointing out that “no Catholic likes to hear about these things, said or published…no one will take pleasure in these things. It’s abhorrent. But though we are less than three per cent, the work done by yesteryear’s missionaries in setting up schools and colleges, hospitals, orphanages and homes for the destitute is probably unparalleled. But all that is past. The victims [who wrote their books] must have tried to get justice within the Church first, before writing their books, without success. Many in the leadership want to sweep everything under the carpet. They consider the image of Church as paramount…at any cost the image should not be sullied, even if that means shielding the guilty.”
Communications expert Allwyn Fernandes, often a critic of the Church, told me, “There is enough good work that has been done to stand out amidst the filth. Let us rather work to flush out the filth than try to hide it further.” I feel strongly that the ordinary Christian and Catholic does not want to defend the indefensible. But he abhors sensationalism of the sort Outlookindulged in.
The people want the leadership to be more open and provide space for suggestions towards improvement. Work needs to begin from the very beginning. We know that the vocation is falling, and is now almost limited to the tribal belts. But even in times of scarcity, a certain level of filtering has to be done. The candidate is the building block of the Church. The seminary is where that block is moulded. If the foundations are strong, the products of these seminaries will be worthy of their training and of their vows.
I think it’s time strong signals came from the Indian Church hierarchy, as they have come from Rome. Perhaps zero tolerance may not be possible day after tomorrow, but it is a laudable target and needs to be pursued. The first step would be a roving enquiry, including social scientists, human resource experts and theologians, and a sprinkling of those with some forensic experience. That would be a good beginning. And it needs to be done before the State, for ulterior motives, intervenes, or the media mocks us for TRPS and circulation.
(Dr John Dayal, member, National Integration Council, is past national president of the All-India Catholic Union and secretary-general of the All-India Christian Council.)