Wolf in priest’s clothing / K. P. M. Basheer

Followers will hopefully increasingly demand probity in the affairs of the church

The confession, an article of faith for Catholic and Orthodox Christians, is in trouble in Kerala. The reason: sexual blackmail by some confessor priests. “The confessor priest should never break the ‘sacramental seal’ as he has vowed to keep the secrets of the confessant until death, even at the cost of his own life,” says Father Paul Thelakkat, a senior Syro-Malabar clergyman and Chief Editor of the church journal, Light of Truth.

Recent events have shown that the seal sometimes gets broken. In June, a man shockingly alleged that his wife had been sexually abused by four Orthodox priests for years. She had confessed about a pre-marital affair to a priest who then used this information to coerce her into sexual relations. The priest shared her secret with three other priests, who also exploited her. The priests threatened that if she ever dared to report them, they would let her husband know of her affair. Unable to cope with the ordeal, the woman finally told her husband what had happened. Rattled, he reported the priests to the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church bishops. To his surprise, the church authorities ordered him to stay quiet. He protested and persisted, even as the entire Orthodox church establishment rushed to the priests’ defence. The church in Kerala, regardless of denomination, has a history of hushing up sexual abuses by priests. In this case, however, media exposure forced the police to act: two suspects were arrested while the other two secured temporary Supreme Court relief from arrest.

Sexual abuse accusations against priests are not uncommon in Kerala, but the confession-related blackmail charge is rare, at least in the public realm. In the wake of the confession blackmail case, a series of allegations of priests breaking the ‘sacramental seal’ emerged, including by a man who alleged that his wife had committed suicide after her confession was leaked by the confessor-priest to another woman.

Meanwhile, the confession rape scandal took a political turn when the Chair of the National Commission for Women, Rekha Sharma, called for a ban on confession. Ms. Sharma threatened to recommend to the Central government that it abolish this rite claiming that the practice encouraged sexual crimes. Her remarks appeared to have enraged those fighting for the fundamental right to freedom of religion. Consequently, almost the entire Christian community rallied behind the right to confession. Sensing trouble, the BJP leadership stepped in to limit the damage, and Union Minister K.J. Alphons publicly announced that banning confession was not on the government’s agenda. The scandal will not dent the faith in the age-old rite, but it has dented the faith in priests. Women will now be careful while confessing. More importantly, the faithful will hopefully increasingly — and rightly — demand probity in the affairs of the church.

The writer is Chief of Bureau with The Hindu in Kozhikode