A 17-year-old from Tamil Nadu is found dead at the residence of a priest in Kerala. Is it a suicide? Or murder? Arun Janardhanan tells the story of the girl’s mother taking on the Catholic church, leading to the arrest a week ago of five senior priests, including a Bishop
How do you say no to God?” a victim of sexual abuse asks a team of investigative reporters in the Oscar-winning Spotlight, a movie based on Boston Globe’s months-long investigation into cases of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. At her home in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, Shanthi Roselin, 42, says a similar line, over and over again: “Avar engalin kadavulaaka irunthaar (He was our God).”
On July 23, 2013, Roselin’s 17-year-old daughter Fathima Sophia was found dead in the guestroom of Father Arockiaraj, the priest of St Stanislaus Church in Walayar in Palakkad, a Kerala district that borders Tamil Nadu. Police registered a case of suicide and the matter was soon closed.
What followed were a series of bizarre events — Father Arockiaraj allegedly confessing to the victim’s mother that he killed her, a ‘letter’ that pointed to a relationship between Sophia and Arockiaraj, a secret canonical court that resulted in the defrocking of Arockiaraj, some secret correspondence with Rome, transfer of police officers in Kerala. All along, Roselin says, she knew her daughter hadn’t killed herself.
Three years later, Roselin’s fight against the powerful Catholic Church for allegedly colluding to cover up the “murder” of her 17-year-old daughter has reached a key turning point. Last week, five top Catholic priests, one of them a Bishop, were arrested and subsequently released on bail. The arrests were under Sections 201 and 202 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deal with “causing disappearance of evidence” and “intentional omission of information”. The sixth priest, Arockiaraj, who is accused of killing the girl, was arrested in December 2015 and is now out on conditional bail. He has now been booked for rape and sexual assault under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
Though Arockiaraj, now 36, denies murdering Sophia and says he had “no sexual relationship” with her, the minutes of the proceedings of a canonical court held on August 19, 2013, four weeks after the murder, show otherwise. In the meeting — The Sunday Express has accessed its minutes — Arockiaraj admits that he had “bodily contact” with the victim and that he “used her”. The meeting, presided over by Coimbatore diocese Bishop Thomas Aquinas, had ended with the Bishop saying that he has to write to Rome for “not to say Mass”, meaning Arockiaraj’s suspension.
Fr. John Joseph, the Vicar General of the Coimbatore Diocese, says the Church acted immediately against Arockiaraj “as per the canon law”. When asked why the Church hadn’t reported sexual abuses against a minor to police, he says, “That was a mistake… We are innocent… It was a very, very unfortunate incident. There were mistakes on the part of the Church too. But we didn’t do it on purpose.”
Roselin says her family first met Arockiaraj in 2007, when he was transferred to a church near their home in Coimbatore town. “My daughter was then in Class VI. Arockiaraj was like God to us. He used to call me akka (elder sister),” she says.
Since Sophia’s father was physically impaired — an accident had left him with speech and hearing problems — Arockiaraj, says Roselin, was a father figure to Sophia and “was like family”. Roselin’s husband works as a salesman in a textile shop in Coimbatore.
Roselin gives several instances of how the priest won their trust: how he had twice, in 2011 and 2012, taken her daughter to a church-run hospital near Thodupuzha in Kerala for the treatment of a “nerve disorder”, how even during the last summer vacation, Arockiaraj had taken her to the church in his car almost every Saturday and Sunday for catechism classes. Even after the priest moved out of Coimbatore, first to Valparai in Tamil Nadu and later to Walayar, Roselin and her family kept in touch with Arockiaraj.
Roselin says her daughter regularly visited the church campus in Walayar, 38 km from their home. “Arockiaraj was the only person she was familiar with there. She would hang on to his every word. He was also very affectionate and we had no reason to suspect anything,” says Roselin.
However, a month before her murder, Roselin says, the girl had slapped the priest. “He was visiting us that day. When I returned with a glass of juice from the kitchen, I saw her slapping him. I shouted at her but he asked me to calm down, saying she was just angry that he had scolded her. I did scold her.”
A day before the alleged murder, Roselin says, she and her husband had spent the night in a hospital in Coimbatore, where her mother-in-law was admitted. “The children (Sophia and her younger brother) were at home that night. We reached home at 6.30 am in the morning and were to leave for the hospital again. As Sophia woke up, she said she was coming with us, but later changed her mind and said she was going to college,” says Roselin. Sophia, a first-year BCom student, went to a college near Walayar.
What happened next can only be pieced together from different versions — Roselin’s, police records, and Arockiaraj’s confession to the canonical court and, allegedly, to Roselin.
Around 12.35 that afternoon, Roselin says, she got a call from Arockiaraj. “Konnittein, konnittein (I killed, I killed),” he allegedly shouted before the call ended abruptly. Soon, he would call her again to say that Sophia had tried to kill herself and that she died in his lap on way to the hospital. “While we were on our way from Coimbatore to Walayar, he called me some 33 times,” says Roselin.
The police reached the spot at 2.30 pm and found the body on the floor. A case of suicide was registered and after an initial investigation, the matter was closed.
In the days and weeks that followed, Roselin says, Arockiaraj would call her and confess that it was he who killed Sophia, that it was “an accident” that happened when he tried to silence her using her dupatta during a minor scuffle at his church room. As he sought pardon, he was said to have made more confessions: that senior priests and the Kerala police had helped him cover up the death as suicide. “He told me that Bishop Aquinas, who was not in town on the day of the murder, was informed immediately after the incident. They wanted to protect the Church,” says Roselin. This is an angle the police are now probing.
Four days after her daughter’s death, Roselin suffered a heart attack and had to undergo an angioplasty. But through all this, what rankled her was that since her daughter’s death was declared a suicide, the Church had denied Sophia her burial rituals. “I tried to meet the Bishop several times to seek proper rituals for my daughter. But they never let me meet him,” she says.
Four weeks after the girl’s death, Bishop Thomas Aquinas convened a meeting at the Bishop House to discuss the matter. The minutes of the ‘canonical court’, held on August 19, 2013, indicate that the top Church administration, including the Bishop, knew of the alleged sexual abuse, though the Church never reported it to the police. During the meeting, Arockiaraj admits that he had “bodily contact” with the victim. “She forced me to have bodily contact… I used to take her to a psychiatrist…,” he says. He also says that he once “stayed with the girl in Pollachi lodge”.
A year after Sophia’s death, Roselin says she came across “two key things” that steeled her into taking on the Church. One was a “love letter” Arockiaraj had written to Sophia. The letter, which Roselin found in Sophia’s bag, is now with the police (they confirmed the presence of such a letter). The other was a photograph of Sophia, taken while her body was being brought home from Coimbatore. “That day in the ambulance, I had clicked her photos since that was the last time I would see her face. I looked at her photos again and I saw those bruises on her face. That gave me the courage to fight the Church,” she says.
“For the first one year, I had no evidence other than Arockiaraj’s confession. When you are a woman from a poor family attached to the Church, it is not easy to take them on. It’s a big deal,” she says. The family lives in a house owned by the Church.
Arockiaraj’s confessional phone calls reportedly continued. In February 2015, Roselin says she began recording them. She also began calling the priests — since the family had close links with the Church, Roselin knew each of them personally — and asked them about her daughter’s death. In the course of several such conversations, the priests are alleged to have confirmed what Arockiaraj had told her.
That’s when, Roselin says, she decided to “nail Arockiaraj’s lie”. In June 2015, with the help of a relative journalist who worked for a local TV channel, she organised a sting operation against the priest. She called him and told him that Sophia kept appearing in her dreams, asking her why she had “not sought answers from Father”. She requested him to meet her at the Tirupur bus stand. Arockiaraj now lives in Tirupur with his family.
That day, Roselin arrived with a microphone tucked in the folds of her green sari. The TV crew stationed across the road filmed the meeting.
Following the telecast of the sting operation on Zee Tamil TV channel, in which Arockiaraj is seen confessing, Roselin’s house was attacked, the Church organised massive protests in Coimbatore and Roselin was
In the video, accessed by The Sunday Express, Roselin is seen and heard asking Arockiaraj why he killed Sophia. Arockiaraj initially refuses, nervously asking why she wanted to know, “even after I have told you everything”. Roselin then asks Arockiaraj if he killed Sophia alone or if he “allowed others to use her”. “We used to go out often. No other person has touched her… All that happened (that day) was, I wanted to prevent her from making noise… So I used her shawl (dupatta) to silence her. It was an accident, trust me… I didn’t plan it. It was not planned,” he says, pleading. He talks about a similar fight he had with Sophia another night that had left him “embarrassed” since there were nuns living within earshot in the convent on the church campus.
When contacted, one of the nuns, who is now serving as the headmistress of a Church-run school in Walayar, says she did witness one of their fights. “Also, the day Sophia died, I saw her body lying in the guestroom (attached to Arockiaraj’s room). He was a good priest. But we never interfered in his personal matters,” she says.
Arockiaraj, in the video, also admits that he informed senior priests about the “accident”. And that it was a police officer (he doesn’t name him) who advised him to make it seem like a suicide and tell the story of her dying on way to the hospital. Arockiaraj goes on to tell Roselin that he is scared to go to jail.
Arockiaraj was arrested in December 2015, six months after the telecast of the video.
Talking to The Sunday Express, Arockiaraj, who spent 60 days in prison, denies the allegations. He says the TV show was a “drama”. “I don’t want to name anyone but it is a conspiracy to tarnish the Church. I have not been booked under 302 (the IPC Section relating to murder), Section 307 (attempt to murder) is the only charge against me. Other priests and the Bishop booked in this case are also innocent. Roselin has come up with these allegations, a year and a half after the incident, to extort some Rs 20 crore from the Church,” he says.
Arockiaraj also claims that he “had no sexual relationship” with the girl. “I revealed all this before the canonical court of the Bishop… God has a plan for me. I trust in God,” he says.
In August 2015, two years after Sophia’s death, Roselin went to the Palakkad SP’s office (under whose jurisdiction the Walayar church falls) with all the “evidence” — the recorded phone calls, the video — and asked for the case to be reopened.
In May 2016, a Palakkad court ordered the police to arrest the four priests and the Bishop. Two weeks ago, DSP M K Zulfiquer, who was transferred out of Palakkad by the previous Congress-led UDF government in Kerala, was sent back by DGP Lokanath Behera to lead a fresh investigation.
DGP Behera says their investigation so far shows that all the priests and the Bishop knew of “the series of sexual abuses on a minor”. “They reported it to Rome but were hiding the same information from the police. The police also should have acted promptly. If there are complaints that the probe was influenced in the initial stages, we will probe that too,” he says.
DSP Zulfiquer says the final chargesheet in the case will be submitted in 30 days. “We are studying the evidence. Section 302 (for murder) may be added in the final chargesheet. The accused has already been booked for rape and under POCSO,” he says.
Kulantha Raj, one of the priests accused of the cover-up, accepts that Arockiaraj “made a mistake” but goes on to ask why Roselin had taken two years to approach the police. When asked about the presence of audio tapes, in which he is heard talking to Roselin about the murder, he simply says the Church has taken action against Arockiaraj.
“This mother should have been cautious. It was a sex scandal. We sent the report to Rome and Pope Francis issued the suspension order,” says Raj, 59, who was the ‘in-charge Bishop’ on the day of the murder. Father Madala Muthu, 65, the former vicar general, Father Melchoir, who works as the rector of a seminary, Father A M A Lawrence, the procurator of the Coimbatore diocese, and Bishop Acquinas are the other accused priests — all of them top priests in the Catholic church.
“They (the priests) were God to us,” says Roselin, sitting at her home in Coimbatore. “Pope Francis is the only person I trust now. He is God.”
‘I used the girl. I accept’
Four weeks after the alleged murder, a ‘canonical court’ was held at the Coimbatore Bishop House to discuss the matter. The meeting was held for the purpose of a formal document to be sent to Vatican and had reportedly lasted only a few minutes, said sources in the Bishop House.
Excerpts from the minutes of the proceedings, held on August 19, and accessed by The Sunday Express.
Arockiaraj: When I was in (Coimbatore), they came for the birthday blessings of the girl. In the beginning, I had only phone communication. When I was in Valparai, she used to contact me over phone…
Bishop: “It is said that the girl was abused many times.”
Arockiaraj: “I used the girl. I accept.”
Bishop: “She is a minor girl. Why did you do that?”
Arockiaraj: “They threatened me, out of fear I did. I thought that it would solve the problem.”
Arockiaraj: Once I stayed with the girl in Pollachi lodge
Fr Lawrence (judge of the court): “Did she ask you to marry her?”
Arockiaraj: “She never asked me to marry her. They compelled to give a letter, I wrote a letter — (that) I abused her and spoiled her.”