Updated: March 3, 2020 11:50:27 am
The Catholic diocese of Mananthavady in Kerala on Sunday announced the Papal decision to dismiss from priesthood Fr Robin Vadakkuncheril who was last year sentenced to 20 years’ rigorous imprisonment by a POCSO court for having raped and impregnated a minor in a parish where he worked at the time. The scandal is unparalleled in the list of reported cases of sexual abuse in the Church in Kerala.
The 51-year-old defrocked priest had been a director of the Church daily Deepika, and the Church backed TV channel Jeevan. He had headed INFARM, the farmers’ outfit of the Church, and been at the forefront of several agitations.
Known as an influential priest in Mananthavady diocese, Vadakkuncheril had faced allegations of misconduct earlier too, but had escaped action. Catholic women in his parish affectionately called him “papa”, and he had sent many women abroad to study.
The rape of the minor
The girl belonged to a Catholic family in a parish where Vadakkuncheril worked as a priest. In May 2016, the girl, who had at the time just written her Class 10 exams, went to Vadakkuncheril’s parsonage for some data-entry work of the parish. In the afternoon, when the other girls were away, the priest took the girl to his bedroom and raped her. He let her go home after commanding her not to reveal the incident to anyone. The girl said nothing to her family. She went to school, and attended mass at the local church every day. She had become pregnant as a result of the rape, but no one seemed to have realised this.
The crime exposed
On February 7, 2017, the girl developed severe pain in her abdomen. Her father, a labourer, was away from home. Her mother, a homemaker, and a family friend, Thankamma Nelliyani, took the girl to a nearby hospital, which referred her to Christu Raja Hospital, Koothuparamba, in Kannur, run by nuns of the Sacred Heart Congregation.
On examination, it was revealed that the girl was pregnant; she subsequently gave birth. She told her mother about the incident at the parsonage, after which the family took up the matter with Vadakkuncheril, who offered to pay the hospital bill of Rs 30,000. The bishop of Mananthavady, Mar Jose Porunnedom, was informed. The hospital informed Childline, the nodal agency of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, that a minor had delivered a baby.
The cover-up begins
Allegedly at the behest of Vadakkuncheril, Thankkamma Nelliyani’s daughter Liz Maria, a nun belonging to Society of Kristudasis, a congregation based in Mananthavady, and her colleague, nun Aneeta, secretly took the baby out of the hospital and admitted it to a foundlings’ home in Wayanad. (Thankamma Nelliyani was later arraigned as the second accused in the case.)
As the police opened an investigation, Vadakkuncheril pressured the girl’s father to find someone who would claim to be the child’s biological father, and promised the family that he would do everything to help hush up the incident. But the father could not find anyone who would take the responsibility for his daughter’s child. Finally, under great pressure from Vadakkuncheril and to protect the priest and the Church from disgrace, he said he was responsible for the pregnancy himself.
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The ‘rapist’ father
Police registered a case of rape against the girl’s father, based on his false confession. After being taken into custody, however, the father realised fully the consequences of being accused in a POCSO case. He changed his statement, and told police that the man responsible for the crime was Vadakkuncheril.
As the police zeroed in on him, Vadakkuncheril made plans to flee to Canada. On February 26, 2017, he announced during Sunday Mass that he would not be available at the parish for a week. And then he disappeared. The bishop remained silent, virtually allowing Vadakkuncheril an opportunity to get away. The following day, police arrested Vadakkuncheril from Kochi, from where he was about to leave for Canada. The Church placed him under suspension.
Nuns, priest in net
The investigation exposed the involvement of several nuns and a priest in the crime. Liz Maria, who had removed the baby from hospital, and Aneeta, who had taken the baby to Wayanad’s Holy Infant Mary’s foundling home, were arrested and charged with conspiracy. Vaddakkuncheril had planned to have the baby put up for adoption at the foundlings’ centre. The superintendent of the foundling home, nun Offilia, the chairman of the Wayanad district child welfare committee, Fr Thomas Therakam, and nun-cum-doctor Betty Jose, a member of the committee, were also made accused.
Offilia had not informed the child welfare committee in writing that the baby had been admitted to the adoption centre. She had informed the committee by phone, but the committee members had not turned up at the adoption centre.
Two nuns, Tessy Jose and Ancy Mathew of Christu Raja Hospital, Koothuparamba, where the baby was born, and paediatrician Hyder Ali of the same hospital, were accused of covering up the incident. These three individuals moved discharge petitions before the Supreme Court. After the court allowed their petitions, they were removed from the list of accused by the trial court.
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Victim turns hostile
In August 2018, with the trial ongoing, the girl turned hostile. She said she had had consensual sex with Vadakkuncheril, and that she wanted to live with him. She claimed that she had attained the age of consent at the time of the incident. But she could furnish no evidence in back her claim.
Her parents too, turned hostile, and said they wanted to see their daughter live with the accused priest. The parents also went back on their earlier statements against the other accused.
But nothing could ultimately save Vadakkuncheril. In December 2019, the Pope issued the order to defrock him. The process of his dismissal concluded last month. Vadakkuncheril is currently in Kannur’s Central Prison.
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