Reporting sexual offence cases to concerned authorities, cooperating in the investigation, and avoiding inappropriate physical contact with minors: these are some of the key guidelines that the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) has issued to church personnel, even as a number of sexual assault allegations have emerged from within the community.
The guidelines have been sent to Catholic presbyteries, churches, educational and religious institutions, and houses of special care under the KCBC. They also specifically recommend defrocking of a priest or member of clergy if found guilty of sexual offences – the first time that an official guideline of the church recommends such actions.
First issued in June 2018, the guidelines have been circulated again after the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) had recently called for ensuring a safe environment for minors and vulnerable adults at Christian institutions.
One of the key guidelines of the KCBC reads, “Sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults are heinous crimes and grave sins.”
The Church body has stated that it has “zero tolerance towards sexual assault”, and that any such incident must be reported to church and civil authorities. A “high degree of caution” must be applied in matters of physical contact between adults and minors, and such physical contact must be entirely “non-sexual” and “incapable of being misconstrued by the minor or others”.
One guideline reads, “No minor shall reside in any church rectory or other living quarters of priests…” Another reads, “Over night trips alone with a minor should be avoided. Do not take photographs of the minors when they are unclothed or are dressing.”
It further says, “If the Bishop/Major Superior, after studying the results of the investigation by the Sexual Offences Committee, concludes that the alleged offender is guilty and constitutes a risk for minors, the offender is to be immediately relieved of all offices he had been holding and it should be examined whether he needs to be advised to request to be reduced to the lay state; he had the option of asking the Holy Father to dispense him from all obligation connected with the clerical state including celibacy; else a procedure may be initiated for his dismissal from the clerical state. Penal remedies may also be imposed.”
The guidelines also bar church personnel from indulging in sexually offensive humor, and viewing and exhibiting any sexually explicit or “morally inappropriate” material in the presence of minors and vulnerable adults.
The recent allegations of rape and sexual assault against Bishop Franco Mulakkal of the Jalandhar diocese has led to a massive upheaval within the Church. A nun belonging to the order Missionaries of Jesus had accused Mulakkal of raping her several times between 2014 and 2016 at a convent in Kerala. The nun’s colleagues had proceeded to sit on an indefinite strike in Kochi demanding his arrest. In September 2018, the bishop was arrested after three days of questioning by the Kerala Police and sent to judicial remand for three weeks. He’s currently out on bail.
A key KCBC official said the guidelines were prepared and disseminated to concerned authorities in June 2018, and that the reporting of the rape case against Mulakkal was only “accidental”.
“We had already started the work on this before it (allegations against Mulakkal) happened…The guidelines have been sent to respective bishops and dioceses. All the priests are well aware of it,” said Fr Jolly Vadakken, one of the commission secretaries. “The Pope has addressed this issue several times. This is part of the reformation policy of the Church,” he said.