Kerala is in the midst of a socio-religious upheaval. Just a couple of months before the Supreme Court’s 29 September Sabarimala verdict, the state witnessed two allegations against church priests. Followers of the Roman Catholic and Malankara Orthodox Syrian churches saw these cases as proof of the mounting list of alleged sexual crimes committed by priests world over.

Since then, nuns and activists have taken to the streets, protesting outside the Kerala high court. In June, a nun alleged that Jalandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal had subjected her to unnatural sex multiple times at a small town near Kottayam between 2014-16. It is also alleged that church authorities ignored her initial complaints. In another case, a 36-year-old man in Kottayam circulated an audio clip in June, alleging that his wife had been raped since she was 15 by five priests of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church over 20 years. The priests had allegedly used the woman’s confession to blackmail and force her into having sex.

In July, the National Commission for Women (NCW) constituted a three-member inquiry committee into these alleged sexual assaults. Rekha Sharma, chairperson of the NCW, recommended abolishing confession, as it could lead to the blackmailing of women, in the committee’s report to the Union home ministry, sent on 25 July. “The priests pressure women into telling their secrets and we have one such case in front of us, there must be many more such cases and what we have right now is just a tip of the iceberg," she had stated then.

An outcry followed, and the proposal was called absurd and unconstitutional. The Archdiocese of Bombay issued a counterstatement on 27 July. In the statement, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, said the NCW’s demand would be “a direct infringement on our freedom of religion guaranteed by the Indian Constitution". He also said the NCW betrayed a lack of understanding of the sacrament and “an ignorance of the strict laws of the church to prevent any abuse". The cardinal was joined by a chorus of similar voices, such as Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, the head of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. According to Vatican News, he said, “If there is a crime, the law of the land should deal with it. You can’t blame religious customs citing this." Authorities and believers said that the NCW’s proposal interfered with one of the seven sacraments that these churches hold as a cornerstone of the faith—that of penance and reconciliation. Moreover, the NCW was basing its proposal on a single reported case.

Given the opposition, Sharma says the NCW amended the proposal on 1 August. “We sense that confession has been misused, but it is also a practice followed by several women. So, we propose that confession should be by choice and that the church should assure that it will be safe for women," she says.

The proposal will be a tough one for the home minister to respond to. It calls to mind the French ban on the veil, and all its iterations, in 2010. France has an estimated five million Muslims. For many French Muslim women, the veil was not a symbol of patriarchal oppression, but a practice they willingly chose to follow. The French ban was condemned by many, such as Amnesty International, which called it a violation of the freedom of expression. The European Court of Human Rights, on the other hand, argued that the veil was “inhumane and degrading". Should the choice have been left to the women?

“If you think about it," says Sharma, “the problem with confession is a lot like the Sabarimala case." The Supreme Court’s verdict ended an age-old tradition that disallowed women between 10-50, presumed to be of menstruating age, from entering the Sabarimala temple. The apex court put constitutional rights above the tenets of the faith. For women across India, this was a welcome move. But, there have also been as many voices that have opposed the verdict, calling it a judicial overreach. Gaining access into a pilgrim centre is only secondary to upholding the tradition, they argue. Sharma says, “However, after the verdict, the good news is that many women now have a choice—they can either go to Sabarimala or not—something they didn’t have earlier."

Confession is a choice

The French ban is the polar opposite of the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala. One took away choice; the latter has opened up options. Which way will the confession debate progress in the clash between law and religion?

If the misuse of confession can result in the alleged blackmailing of women, then the practice falls in a highly-contested space between the fundamental right to dignity and the fundamental right to religion. “Confession is a sacrament and a fundamental part of the church. Imagine if the government said you cannot do namaaz on Friday," says advocate Flavia Agnes. According to the Mumbai-based women’s rights lawyer, the NCW’s original proposal seemed particularly targeted against the rights of a minority religious community.

But is confession mandatory and fundamental to the church?

Father Julian Saldanha, theologian and professor at the archdiocesan seminary in Mumbai, throws light on the ritual of confession, which starts with the famous opening, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned". Hate the sin and not the sinner—that’s the message behind this spiritual cleansing. The ideology goes back to the many times in the Bible that Christ forgave sinners, and stressed upon God’s mercy for the truly repentant.

“The sacrament of penance and reconciliation has been wrongly given the name of confession. Confession is but part of this larger sacrament," says Fr Julian. He explains that confession has evolved in the Catholic church. For centuries, the church had reserved a public penance, once in a life-time, for grave sins, such as adultery or murder. By the 8th century AD, a change was coming in. Confessions became private, and were encouraged multiple times a year. The Second Vatican Council, which took place in the 1960s, followed through and provided the faithful with “reconciliation rooms", which are more informal than confessional booths and chairs. “Today, penitents can ask for this option of the reconciliation room, as they feel they are talking to a person and not just a voice behind a screen. It feels more human," he observes.

Even so, the numbers of those who practise confession have significantly dipped globally. In a 2008 survey of adult Catholics in the US, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate recorded that only 2% of people went for confession once a month, and 12% confessed once a year. The Orthodox Church, the Lutherans and the Anglicans, Fr Julian says, also have confession, but they are not expected to follow it as frequently as Roman Catholics.

Fr Nigel Barrett, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Bombay, says confession, while not mandatory, is far from obsolete. “There are scrupulous penitents who feel the need to confess. At the same time, there are those who haven’t confessed in 10-15 years, and that’s fine too," he says. The reason people confess, he explains, is that the practice is a lot like counselling with an added spiritual and psychosocial component. He adds, “Confessions are bound by a sacramental seal and priests can get excommunicated if they divulge details or misuse it."

Rekha Sharma, chairperson of the NCW, initially recommended abolishing confession, as it could lead to the blackmailing of women, in the committee’s report to the Union home ministry, sent on 25 July. Photo: @ncwindia
Rekha Sharma, chairperson of the NCW, initially recommended abolishing confession, as it could lead to the blackmailing of women, in the committee’s report to the Union home ministry, sent on 25 July. Photo: @ncwindia

A safe space for women

What about the women who do choose to follow the ritual? How can their safety be ensured?

At the moment, there are reform groups in Kerala pushing for nuns to be confessors on the grounds that priests solicit details when discussing sins of a sexual nature. It is a demand since 2017, after a case was registered against Fr Robin of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church who allegedly raped and impregnated a 16-year-old girl within the church premises.

Among the activists is Maria Thomas, a former nun who left her congregation because she “did not want to deal with male domination". Cynical of NCW’s proposal, she says, “The Vatican has allowed lay people and nuns to be Eucharistic ministers and give communion. Yet, you will find women queuing up to receive communion from the priest—because they think he is appointed by God," she says.

Sandhya Raju, who represents the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement, which registered the complaint on behalf of the nun who was allegedly raped by Bishop Mulakkal, says given the structure of the church, nuns cannot claim to have as much power as priests. Many come from low-income groups, and lean on the church for their monthly stipend of around 500 per month.

In 2002, The Boston Globe, in a series of stories, unearthed sex scandals and paedophilia within the Catholic church in the Boston area. The series was revisited in the Oscar-winning Hollywood film, Spotlight. Mathew N. Schmalz, a researcher of Catholicism in Asia and Africa, in one of the stories for Globe stated, “In India, you’d have gossip and rumors, but it never reaches the level of formal charges or controversies."

More than 15 years later, things are beginning to change, albeit slowly. Raju says there are verbal complaints of women and children being allegedly abused by priests, but many are not registered on account of the culture of silence. She perceives the problem to be that a number of institutions are supported by the churches. Be it hospitals, educational institutions or even NGOs working with women and children—where the church is involved, there are priests in positions of power. “If a woman complains about sexual abuse by a church authority, it is very likely that she will not be believed. There is a culture of secrecy that prevails here. Women who approach these institutions are counselled in a manner protecting the patriarchal (church) setup and would rather keep silent," says Raju.

Yet, there may be those, like the nun who was allegedly raped by Bishop Mulakkal, who may have found that confession is the sacrament it promises to be. The nun claimed that at a religious retreat, she confessed to a priest about the abuse. The priest advised her that she complain to the church authorities and the police. However, during investigations, the police haven’t been able to find this priest, as the confession is bound by confidentiality.

Confessions in progress at a church in Kerala. Photo: Alamy
Confessions in progress at a church in Kerala. Photo: Alamy

Symptom of a larger problem

The problem isn’t confession, argues Flavia Agnes. The problem is power.

Virginia Saldanha is among the few female theologians in India who worked for women’s rights in the Catholic church in Mumbai, only to leave feeling disillusioned. She occupied several positions in the church from the 1990s to 2010 at the diocesan, national and Asian levels, and claims she could do only what the bishops wanted.

She says the NCW has no business interfering in the conduct of rituals of any faith, and it should be left to the women within the church to raise the issue. But, she admits that this will be a long struggle as the church leadership with decision-making power is all male.

Virginia says, “We have to get rid of clericalism, not confession, to get rid of sexual abuse. Clericalism sadly is a culture that is bred by the patriarchal structure of the church. Only ordained males can be leaders, the argument being that Jesus was male. Therefore lay women and nuns cannot be part of the decision-making structure. The church is not even a democracy, or then we could have democratic power. The only power that is left for us to use are the laws of the country when there is violence done."

With clericalism, the priestly class protects its own even when criminal acts occur. Virginia’s sentiments echo those of Pope Francis, who in a statement in August, had said, “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism."

Such incidents are not reserved to churches alone. Hindu godmen like Asaram Bapu and Swami Nithyananda have cases of sexual assault lodged against them. The former was given a life sentence this year following the rape of a 16-year-old girl in 2013. Last month, the trial of Nithyananda for the alleged rape of his disciple in 2010 began in Karnataka. Self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who dubbed himself “Messenger of God (MSG)", was convicted in 2017 on two charges of rape. Thousands of his devotees retaliated upon his arrest, damaging public property.

The NCW chairperson certainly stirred up a hornet’s nest, but in the process, may have unwittingly nodded to a deeper malaise plaguing religious institutions. As Virginia says, “When you add power and money to spirituality, you get a heady, dangerous mix."

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