Mote and the beam
by Sandhya Jain on 03 Mar 2009 6 Comments

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye” - Matthew 7.3

So deep is the disarray caused by insider accounts of sexual abuse and moral depravity in the Kerala Catholic church that the authorities have failed to come up with a coherent response even two weeks after “Amen” hit the bestseller ceiling in Malayalam bookstores. Two editions have already been sold out.

Having beheld for decades the mote and the beam in the eyes of the church, Dr. Sister Jesme Raphael has shown extraordinary courage to witness what happened to her and other nuns who entered the church in good faith, expecting to lead lives of virtue and service to god and society. What actually happened behind the closed convent doors was rampant exploitation of nuns by priests and same sex relations. In other words, stories similar to those pouring out of catholic monasteries in every Western society.

The insider-victim who bears witness gives added poignancy and weightage to the account of a woman who struggled and suffered for three decades in a vain attempt to be a bride of Christ and not a plaything of men. Sister Jesme was no ordinary nun; a professor of English and principal of St. Mary's College in Thrissur, she finally quit the Congregation of Mother Carmelite after attempts to admit her to the notorious Divine Life institution and declare her insane, and also to “open a little window to allow some light to enter into the sufferings of hundreds of women.”

The timing could not be more apt. The book comes close in the heels of the arrest of two nuns in the Sister Abhaya rape-cum-murder case, which the Catholic Church struggled to suppress for 16 long years; the recent suicide of Sister Anupama Mary in Kollam; her father alleged sex abuse by convent superiors. More recently, the Kerala Church hit the headlines following the controversial adoption of a 26-year-old woman by a bishop – an event which forced the authorities to order an enquiry into the legality of the act. Stories of enormous pressure on Sister Jesme, even monetary inducements, to cease writing her autobiography are hardly surprising.

Amen’s explicit account of sexual repression and harassment, draconian rules and “greed” of the Order, make sad reading. Though official catholic dogma abhors sexual relations of all kinds, same sex relations are especially despised, yet paradoxically flourish with a vengeance. Sister Jesme recounts being forced into a relationship by a fellow nun who said she preferred such a liaison as it avoided the pitfalls of pregnancy – this seems to suggest that the said nun arrived at this form of sexual solace after some experimentation.

The unhappy truth behind this revelation would be that many nuns are young girls who might like to marry and have children, should circumstances permit. This lends weightage to observations that the church is making ‘recruitments’ at a tender age of girls whose families are too poor to resist inducements or pressure.

Sister Jesme recalls an encounter with a priest in Bangalore en route to Dharwar for a UGC refresher course in English. She originally planned to stay at the waiting room of Bangalore railway station, but some convent sisters suggested staying with a “pious, decent priest;” he personally received her at Bangalore. After breakfast, the priest took her to the Lalbagh Botanical Garden and showed her myriad couples cuddling behind the trees. And contrary to the official dogma, he “gave a sermon on the necessity of physical love and described the illicit affairs certain bishops and priests had.” On returning to his room, he stripped and forced her to do the same.

She could not have been his first or last victim. And given the fact that he could be so bold with a nun encountered only by chance, it is chilling to think what he would be doing to ordinary nuns and lay Christian girls and women coming to his presbytery. It is unlikely that church authorities are unaware of the dark side of his life; Sister Jesme says they willfully turned a blind eye to such major transgressions by superiors.

Sadly, this is the suppressed truth of the church, as scrupulously documented by three priests in “Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes. The Catholic Church’s 2000-year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse,” by Thomas P. Doyle, A.W. Richard Sipe and Patrick J. Wall, Volt Press, Los Angeles, 2006.

Written after scandals and lawsuits began to rock America, the book demonstrates that sexual abuse of minor boys, girls, women, by priests can be traced back to the time records were kept! The authors found a conspiracy of silence allows sexual abuse to prosper. Only pressure of exorbitant lawsuits and settlements that endangered church assets finally triggered some church concern about rampaging sexual predators in its ranks. 

From as early as the fourth century, the church consistently failed to get clerics to observe the vows of chastity. In the earliest days when priests were allowed to marry, it told them to avoid sex; when celibacy became mandatory, it passed laws against concubinage! It condemned homosexuality and sexual abuse of minors by clergy, and solicitation of sex by priests in the confessional.

The Council of Elvira (Spain, 309 CE) regulated clerical sexual behaviour. Canon 18 punished any bishop, priest, or deacon found to be a sexual offender with deprivation of Holy Communion even at death. Canon 27 forbade bishops or clerics from having unrelated women living with them; Canon 33 ordered married clerics to completely abstain from sex with their wives. Canon 65 ex-communicated clerics who knowingly neglected to denounce adulterous wives; and Canon 71 (not specifically aimed at clergy) condemned sex between adult men and young boys.

St. Peter Damian’s Book of Gomorrah (1051) attacked the sexual immorality of the clergy of his time and the lax superiors who failed to curb it. He condemned priests who defiled men or boys coming for confession, and priests who gave the sacrament of penance to their own victims. He urged Pope Leo IX to act to redress the damage caused by offending clerics – the response was a model of inaction, a prelude to the experience of our own era.

The author is Editor,

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