Open Letter to Cardinals, Bishops and Major Superiors to Stop Sex Abusers in Church

Dear Cardinals, Bishops and Major Superiors,

It is disheartening and scary to see news breaking out frequently about one or other Catholic priest abusing children, women or seminarians. In recent times some priests have been arrested for various levels of sexual abuse and brought before the judicial system. The number of similar cases not reported may be numerous though we have no means to know the magnitude.

This letter, addressed to the ecclesiastic authorities and major superiors of Catholic Church in India, solicits you to take every measure to protect vulnerable individuals from the dehumanizing tendencies of abusive ecclesiastic personnel before the situation gets worsened and out of control.

Gravity of Sex Abuse

Abusing someone sexually and emotionally is abominable not only because of the sexual violation but it challenges the victim’s personal dignity and integrity. It pushes them to uncomfortable situation of haunting memories and depreciating themselves. They start suffering from shame, guilt and depression. When a priest, who is responsible for the spiritual, moral and material welfare of the faithful, becomes the perpetrator the victim is doubly devastated. The victims feel immensely defenseless and helpless, as well as are intimidated to report the act, as priests holds power and social recognition. Sexual offenses thus are not merely sins of passion but involve abuse of power as well.

This is a humble plea to the ecclesial authorities to see the sexual offence with clear perspective and utmost sensitivity to the victims. Primarily, we get reports of priests or consecrated persons sexually coercing and abusing children or married/unmarried adults. Secondly, ordained or consecrated people sexually abuse persons of opposite or same sex within religious orders and dioceses.

The Church cannot be blamed for one or two person’s misconduct; nevertheless it is the responsibility of the authorities to take every measure to save the victims rather than the perpetrators. As cases of sexual abuse are increasing in the Catholic Church in India there may be temptations to cover them up and protect the predators with a feign reason to save the face of the Church. The Western experience teaches us that this approach would only deface the Church and would make her pay enormous price. Instead, the ecclesiastic leadership needs to walk along with the victim and their family encouraging and supporting them to continue their journey of faith. Dear Bishops and Superiors, people expect a caring shepherd in you. Neglecting the victims as well as dealing them callously can derail the life of the victims and their faith in Church.

I am very well aware that there is no foolproof way to protect children, seminarians and other vulnerable individuals from sexual abuse, nonetheless there are steps that the Church can and should take to reduce the risk of sexual abuse. Let me articulate a few of them.

Creating Safe Environment

Ecclesiastic leadership shall ensure that the campuses of the Church institutions be a safe place especially for children and other vulnerable individuals. The authorities shall also create the safest environment and opportunity for the victims of sexual offences to report the matter to the Church.

  1. Establishing Council for Sexual Offence Grievances: A committee of experts and pastorally helpful individuals shall be constituted in all the dioceses and/or under the aegis of respective Bishop’s Councils that can be contacted at any time by victims for help. The committee shall take the matter into consideration as soon as an offensive act is reported by anyone, with priority to protect and save the victim.
  2. Information to All about the Grievance Cell: The Council of Grievances shall conduct awareness programmes in all seminaries, religious formation houses, children’s hostels, Sunday schools, etc., informing them about types of sexual offenses and what is to be done when such violations occur, and the types of support they would get from the Council. The victims and/or the witnesses shall be encouraged to speak up by providing them confidentiality and guaranteed anonymity.

iii. Toll-Free Number: The ecclesiastic authorities shall establish a toll-free telephone helpline number operative 24×7. The Church shall set up a national telephone number with vernacular language support to the victims. It is advisable to have three such numbers; i) for victims both male and female who are under priestly or religious formation, ii) for child victims and their parents, iii) for lay adult women and men.

  1. Background Check and Support: Ordination or religious consecration does not necessarily make someone whole. Priests and consecrated people are also susceptible to unnatural tendencies and anti-human attitudes. Such persons, especially when children and youth are entrusted to their care, have to be screened with ‘background checks’ as early as possible. If they are found with aberrant inclinations they shall immediately be kept away from attending to children and youth as well as given personal, psychological and spiritual support. Priests, officials and Sunday school teachers also need to be trained on how to spot the warning signs of abuse and what to do if they observe them in order to make the Church a safe space.

Appeal for Action

In a changing cultural context when offences – particularly sexual – are on the increase, the Church shall take every measure to be a secure space for people. Faithful turn to church not only for spiritual experience but also for total development of their life. It is the obligation of the shepherds to provide the faithful with the safest ambience for their integral growth. Failure in shepherding makes the Divine Mercy weeps for its flock:

Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds pasture the flock? You consumed milk, wore wool, and slaughtered fatlings, but the flock you did not pasture. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick or bind up the injured. You did not bring back the stray or seek the lost but ruled them harshly and brutally… No one looked after them or searched for them (Ezekiel 34:2-4, 6).

As the Church is winding up the Year of Mercy one of the best pastoral consolation the ecclesiastic leadership could offer the faithful is to make its institutions and campuses safe for children and women. I humbly beseech the ecclesiastic authorities and major superiors to make quick and courageous steps towards this goal along the line of suggestions proposed above.

Dear Cardinals, Bishops and Major Superiors, let us strive to make the Church a beautiful place where people bloom, develop and feel the protection of God. Let us not fail our people in any sense.

Yours truly,

Fr Joseph Vallikatt

Published in Indian Currents on 14 – 20 November 2016.