The wheels of justice turn slowly, more so when the accused are on the side of power and the powerful. In the case of Abhaya, it took 28 years for the investigative agencies to establish that the 21-year-old nun, found dead in a convent in Kerala in 1992, was murdered. On Wednesday, a CBI special court judge held a nun, Sephy, and a priest, Thomas Kottoor, guilty of Abhaya’s murder and sentenced them to life. A closure in the case after these many years — Abhaya’s parents died as the case laboured in the courts — hardly calls for celebration but it does evoke a sense of trust in due processes.
The verdict is a victory for a few good individuals who selflessly, and at great personal risk, fought off attempts by powerful interests to deny justice to Sister Abhaya. A crime branch probe had concluded that she suffered from depression and committed suicide by jumping into a well in the convent. A CBI probe reached a similar conclusion and sought to close the case. It was a little-known social activist, Jomon Puthenpurackal, from the same congregation as the victim and the accused, who pursued the case in the courts. Judges in the lower courts refused to accept the investigating agencies’ closure reports and prodded them to dig deeper. Finally, the testimony of an eye witness, Raju, who had intruded into the compound at night, sealed the case. A poor labourer, Raju refused to change his statement through the trial, despite reportedly receiving physical threats and financial inducements. His explanation was simple: As the father of three girls, he had to fight for Abhaya.
The moral courage and perseverance shown by Jomon, Raju and others in their pursuit to ensure justice for a woman with no social or political capital, and who they did not even know, is in sharp contrast to the attitude of the (Knanaya) Church and a section of law enforcers, who, in fact, were duty-bound to protect her. In her case, the Church, which is morally and theologically committed to stand with the weak and the truth, chose to gloss over the crime. More recently, nuns in Kerala, across denominations, have come out against institutional corruption, particularly sexual crimes. Some in the clergy have rubbished these allegations, attempted to tarnish their reputation. This is in sharp contrast to the stand of eminences such as Pope Francis who have acknowledged the history of male domination and abuse of women and children. The Abhaya verdict should be a moment for renewal and reflection — at both levels, individual and institutional.
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