Kerala police on Friday arrested another priest in a sexual exploitation case that has rocked the Orthodox Syrian church over the last few weeks. Police said Father Johnson V Mathew was arrested from Thiruvalla in Pathanamthitta district and brought to the crime branch office for questioning.
Another accused in the case, Father Job Mathew, had surrendered before the investigating team on Thursday. Police are still hunting for two more priests booked in the case.
The Kerala high court had earlier rejected bail pleas filed by the priests, observing that that “they appeared to have acted as predators”. It also said that there was no reason to disbelieve the allegations put forth by the 34-year-old woman.
In her statement to the police, the complainant said she was first assaulted at a prayer meeting by one of the priests – Father Varghese – when she was 16 years old. After the woman got married in 2009, she related the incident to a second priest – Father Job Mathew – at a confessional. However, instead of helping her, the clergyman allegedly used his newly acquired knowledge to sexually exploit her too. Later, he informed two of his colleagues – Jais K George and Jonson V Mathew – who also joined in blackmailing her. The issue came to light after her husband released an audio clip with his version of the incident on the social media.
This is the first time the police have registered a case on the basis of a confession, which is considered as one of the seven sacraments of the church. Kerala is the biggest exporter of ecclesial professionals in the country.
However, many priests have been getting mired in controversies lately. Even cardinal Mar George Alancherry, the highest priest of the Catholic church in Kerala, was named in a recent land scam.
Religious reformers cite police records to state that these are no isolated incidents. As many as 12 priests have been arrested from various parts of the state for allegedly abusing minors and raping women over the last 18 months, they point out.
Victims, for their part, allege that church authorities often try to hush up complaints instead of exposing the guilty. A nun who filed sexual assault charges against Jalandhar bishop Franco Mulakkal claimed that she approached many dignitaries (including cardinal Alancherry and the Vatican representative) in vain before finally filing a police complaint.
“If any complaint comes up, their first instinct is to hush it up in some manner. I am happy that some are coming up now,” said sister Jesme, an author-activist whose bare-all autobiography – Amen – relates the alleged mental and physical harassment meted out to her in religious circles a few years ago.