For behold, I will raise up a shepherd in the land who will neither care for the lost, nor seek the young, nor heal the broken, nor sustain the healthy, but he will devour the flesh of the choice sheep and tear off their hooves. Woe to the worthless shepherd, who desserts the flock! May a sword strike his arm and his right eye! May his arm be completely withered and his right eye utterly blinded! (Zechariah 11:16-17)
Court of Daniel
Some of the very intriguing media stories that challenge the moral integrity of the Catholic church in India compelled me to revisit the story of Susanna, the much less discussed Biblical heroine in our times. Susanna is a God-fearing and beautiful woman (Daniel Ch 13).
The story becomes grisly when two men, selected to be temporary judges, plotted to sexually abuse her. Not yielding to their lustful desires she chose to resist their blackmailing and became a victim of their false witness. One should not be too surprised that the Judaic social system was more gracious than that of our times; when men question the moral integrity of women even courts disbelieve her and is more likely to condemn her to death.
The anti-climax of the story is when a courageous young boy, Daniel, roused by the Holy Spirit emerged to unveil the wicked plots of the elders. In a second trial Susanna, who was already laid to be executed, was proved innocent, while the public was aghast of the ugly face of the judges who claimed to have authority over the Law of Moses. The story opens up the themes of wisdom and judgment, and provides the restoration of right order within the chosen people of God.
It is not less apparent that women are the primary propelling force of any religion, particularly of the Catholic church. From the apostolic times onwards the church had seen dedicated women at the forefront of the missionary Church. Women, especially the religious nuns, continue to play an unquestionable role in various works of mercy and charity in the modern church.
Nonetheless, stories arising from the dark corridors of Catholic church about breach of trust, psychological harassment, and sexual abuse of nuns and other women is absolutely disappointing and shattering. While many nuns had faced sexual and physical harassment from other religious persecutors earlier, it was unheard of women being harassed by the shepherds themselves. More detestable is the delay of a fair trial, bringing out truth and providing with justice.
While the Catholic church has a very systematic code of laws and organised way of administration, it is pitiful that it terribly lacks an effective grievance cell. First and foremost, majority of its members are not aware of the intricacies of Canon law, as a result many people do not properly report complaints. Secondly, complaints that have civil and criminal nature are not properly registered even if reported in the church. Usually accusers are advised to forgive and forget offences in a ‘Christian spirit.’ Thirdly, members of the church are discouraged to complain when pastors instil fear in them misquoting some selected passages from Bible. Lastly, women are brainwashed or blackmailed by reinforcing that their sexual dignity being tarnished if they report cases of sex scandals. This prompts many women to suffer abuses silently as none (including their parents sometimes) come to their defence.
#MeToo Moment for Catholic Nuns
Women have started boldly reporting assaults against them in their workplace across the world. “Me Too,” a movement that was started to empower women through empathy in 2006, got unprecedented impetus ever since the #MeToo campaign was launched online in 2017. Women in church also joined this movement reporting abuse of clergymen or bishops. In USA catholic women organisations support religious sisters to report any sexual abuse and have demanded the church authorities to take action to end a culture of silence, hold abusers accountable and provide support to those abused.
Reporting abuse requires immense courage and fortitude. But, many believe that speaking out these terrible encounters is the only way to purify the church and punish the perpetrators as other means have been found futile. It is appreciable that many nuns have come forward to speak up, however they are fighting against mammoths who have power and wealth as their fortress.
Elephant in the Sacristy
In patriarchal systems women often get side-lined. When power is absolutely concentrated on one person, as in the case of Catholic church, it is more likely for vulnerable sections such as women, children and the poor being used, misused and in extreme cases abused. The challenge of the Church today is the unquestionable power centres which is a liability as well as a threat to its moral integrity. It is an ecclesiological error and utterly dangerous to equate church with hierarchy. Nevertheless none dares to talk about the elephant in the sacristy.
It is too strange that in India, organisations such as Catholic Religious of India (CRI) has kept studied silence on recent sex scandals. Various commissions that function under the aegis of the CBCI as well as Regional Bishop’s Conferences that directly or indirectly relate to women in the church also distance themselves from addressing abuses.
More importantly, shepherds who are supposed to be the stewards of morality and justice have not spoken anything public. Their deafening silence not only helps the perpetrators roam free but also weakens the trust of people in Church and its systems. The silence of the episcopal collegium is proving that the system of Church in India is too weak to uphold justice for everyone. By distancing from the scandals and delaying justice to the victims the Church asserts that it does not stand for the liberation of the oppressed. The church attests that it is not with the women, not with the victim.
Indeed, a prompt investigation and a fast trial only helps to build the image of the church. If the complaint is malicious and intended to tarnish the name of the church and its shepherds, it is the duty of the church to prove its innocence and redeem the Church from shame. Church also should not allow herself to fall prey to evil people’s conspiracies. The integrity of any organisation remains when it not only guarantees, but also administers justice and charity to all its members. Indeed scandals are occasions for the Church to witness to Truth which is none other than Jesus himself. This is the kairos moment for shepherds to show wisdom and guarantee justice.
The story of Susanna reminds us that when the dignity of women is unduly challenged by the powerful male members of the society, God instils sense of justice and peace in selected people to challenge the situation and save the victim. Restoration of dignity as well as justice is as much important for the community of the people of God that works concertedly for the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Susanna risked death rather than violating her moral and religious integrity. But our shepherds risk their moral and religious integrity rather than yielding to face fair trial.
Dear Catholics, silence is not always spiritual. The glory of the second coming of Christ is manifested when the Church becomes the first one to stand up against abuses and emphatically say that it will not allow any exploitation in the church. Whereas for the victims reporting abuses is a not simply a valiant action, but is an act of purifying the church. Hence, it is an act of evangelising church itself.