A few days ago, a priest in Kerala, India was taken into police custody after attempting to board a flight to Canada. Fr. Mathew Vadakkumchery (also known as “Robin Achen”) was the parish priest of St. Sebastian Church in Kottiyoor, a village in the northern Kerala district of Kannur. He is currently being charged with the unpardonable crime of raping, and impregnanting, a sixteen year old girl. Vadakkumchery is also being accused of bribing the girl’s family with RS 10 lakhs to discreetly keep the matter from the public eye.
Vadakkumchery will pay for his transgressions through the justice system. The evidence is overwhelmingly stacked against him. Unfortunately, Vadakkumchery is only one of numerous sexual predators attempting to hide behind the sanctuary veil.
Within the Catholic community in Kerala, the past few years have been marked with numerous tell-all memoirs written by ex-nuns and ex-priests, elaborating on the deplorably depraved sexual abuse rampant in seminaries and convents in God’s Own Country. From Sister Jesme to Fr. Shibu Kalamparambil, a myriad of idealistic priests and nuns were forced to relinquish their childhood dreams of religious life upon discovering an unholy truth. Coinciding with the scandal in Kottiyoor, another former nun named Mary Chandy has recently had her tell-all memoir published, further attesting to the widespread hedonism ubiquitous behind closed doors.
Most of us are inclined to blame the sexual abuse cases on the Catholic Church’s rigid requirements of clerical celibacy. Although I concur that celibacy is unrealistic and antithetical to our biological needs, we’re ignoring a bigger culprit: power.
Power corrupts. How many times have we’ve heard that adage? The Church’s sociopolitical influence in Kerala exemplifies that quote. Although the Catholic community comprise of ten percent of Kerala’s population, they are hailed as one of the most affluent communities in the state. In Kerala, the most renowned educational institutions and top-rate health care facilities are operated by the Catholic Church. Catholic clerics are hailed as the most respected residents of their vicinity, particularly in south-central Kerala. Even Catholic bishops have been known to dabble in the Kerala political sphere.
In Kerala, it’s not uncommon for low-income Catholic families to pressure one of their sons to pursue the religious life. In the seminaries, young men receive a reputable education at virtually no cost. Their families take advantage of the extensive support provided by the church, mitigating their financial burdens. Once the young men receive the privilege of the white collar, their families get to bask in honor and respectability, a refreshing change-of-pace from previous years of treading the poverty line.
In the eye of zealously devout churchgoers, the ornately robed clerics are as immaculate as the Virgin Mary. They are immuned from the various temptations that burden mere mortals like us. In other words, an achen or pathiri can do no wrong.
Power corrupts. That phrase is more than an overused platitude.
The crimes of Vadakkumchery were initially concealed by those who were determined to protect the church’s reputation. Yesterday, eight people, including five nuns, were booked for conspiring a cover-up. The fact that eight people were willing to put their own lives on the line to protect a predator priest is a testimony to their blind loyalty.
Power corrupts. That phrase is more than just some overused platitude.
The cliched response to this ungodly story is to advocate for systemic reform and blah blah blah. Even Pope Francis had made it a priority to instill accountability to prevent clerical abuse.
However, promises and resolutions can only go so far. The catalyst behind the abuse of clerical privilege is the extreme reverence shown to priests and bishops by their God-fearing parishioners, who continually treat them like the second coming of Christ.
Of course, we were told in our catechism classes that a Catholic priest acts in persona Christi. A priest assumes the role of Jesus when we confess our sins to him. As we see a priest standing in a dignified pose as he consecrates the Holy Eucharist during mass, we forget an undeniable truth. Behind the white collar and decorated attire is a mere mortal, enslaved to the same moral failings of which we are all enslaved.
As long as churchgoers exhibit undying reverence for priests, the Church will never be cleansed of her innumerable scandals.