Confessing one’s sins is one of the sacraments of the Church, but can a believer be compelled to do it?
The Supreme Court on Monday decided to examine a petition which has raised the question of “forced/mandatory confessions” in the Kerala-based Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and its alleged abuse.
A bench headed by Chief Justice of India and comprising Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian issued notice on the plea by three members of the Kerala-based Church who claimed that such confessions by women are subsequently used to sexually exploit them.
The plea, filed through Advocate Sanand Ramakrishnan, referred to the 1934 Constitution of the Church and said that as per this, a person — in order to remain a member of the Church — is mandatorily required to make a confession once a year and names of those who do so are recorded in a confessions register, maintenance of which is also mandatory.
“Mandatory Requirement to ‘Confess’ coupled with the Mandatory Requirement to keep a ‘Confession Register’…has turned into a tool for exploiting men and women parishioners by vicars/priests of the respective church. This compulsion imposed on a parishioner/devotee to mandatorily confess, especially after several reports of exploitation, both sexual and financial have surfaced, seriously interferes with the guarantee provided to every citizen under Articles 21 and 25 of the Constitution of India,” the petitioners Mathew T Mathachan, Shaji P J and Jose C V said, adding “the compulsion to confess is a serious intrusion into the privacy of a person” as held by the SC in the Aadhaar case.
“Such misuse/abuse” of the relevant provisions “by the Church has been going on for several decades”, the plea said, adding “the believers “have been forced to remain meek and quiet out of fear of removal from parish membership, ex-communication, social ostracisation etc”.
The petitioners said women are being forced to confess and such confession is being “used to exploit them sexually” by threatening to divulge the contents to the parent or husband. In the case of men too, these are “used to exploit them financially and at times sexually as well”.
The plea said that “quite contrary to the underlying object of ‘confessions’, there has been a spate of incidents that have been reported which have exposed the sexual exploitation of women, including nuns themselves” and referred to the cases against Bishop Franco and another in this regard.
Pointing out that these reported incidents “are only a tip of the iceberg”, it said that “priests turning into predators is fast becoming an accepted social norm that is almost impossible for the victims to overcome” and that “most victims, due to the sensitive nature of their confessions, keep quiet as they fear social ostracism and sensationalisation of the details of their exploitation across various news channels”.
The plea cited the demand raised by the National Commission for Women’s Chairperson Rekha Sharma for abolishing the practice of confessions and said “making confession mandatory for the administration of the Church is nothing but a barbaric system, which is not acceptable to civilised society”.
The petition also questioned the provisions in the Church constitution which entitle the administration to remove a member from the parish register for failing to meet financial demands, saying it “seriously interferes with a right to worship without fear” and falls foul of Articles 21 and 25 of the Constitution of India.