Jailing of killer priest, nun fuels crisis in India's Catholic Church

Catholic priest Thomas kotooran, center, is brought to a court after being arrested by the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation in Cochin, India, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008.
Catholic priest Thomas kotooran, center, is brought to a court after being arrested by the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation in Cochin, India, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008. AP - Anonymous

Bringing a dramatic end to a nearly three decade old case, a court in the southern Indian state of Kerala has convicted a Catholic priest and a nun of murdering a convent member. The ruling has contributed to a growing crisis in India's Catholic Church.


A special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), a federal investigating agency, sentenced Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy to life in prison after finding them guilty of the murder of Sister Abhaya, who died 28 years ago in the town of Kottayam.

Special CBI Judge K Sanal Kumar gave a double life sentence to Father Kottoor, and imposed a fine of 7,200 euros (650,000 rupees) for destroying evidence.

Justice at last

Sister Abhaya, who was aged 19, was murdered after she discovered Father Kottoor and Sister Sephy engaged in sexual activity. Her body was then dumped in a well.

Her death became a cause célèbre after it was initially dismissed as a suicide by the state police and crime branch, and the CBI later concluded that it was murder.

The CBI charged Kottoor and Sephy in 2009, but it took prolonged legal battles saw the case drag on for 11 years.

“Finally justice has been done. Church authorities have been shielding the guilty and it is high time there is reform in the church after the series of sexual scandals in recent years,” activist Father Alphonse Thomas told RFI.

Series of scandals

Over the past three years the Catholic Church in Kerala has been rocked by sexual assault charges, including a high-profile case involving a bishop accused of raping a nun.

This case sparked rare public protests by nuns over systemic sexual abuse in the church.

Last year, Catholic nun Sister Anupama, and four of her companions from the Missionaries of Jesus congregation in Kerala, led protests demanding the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal, 54, a senior member of the Roman Catholic clergy and head of its Jalandhar diocese.

Mulakkal was accused of raping the nun 13 times between 2014 and 2016. He is out on bail, as the case is being heard in court.

The case roiled India's wider Christian community. In Kerala, where Christians make up 18 percent of the state's 35 million people, the church plays an important role in pioneering educational and health care institutions.

'Wake-up call'

“The conviction of Sister Abaya should be a wake-up call for the clergy. Religious leaders continue to resist reform despite the increasing number of scandals,” Sister Jesme, a Catholic nun in Kerala, told RFI.

“It’s a pity that this crisis is being denied.”

In an explosive autobiography, titled Amen, written in 2008, Sister Jesme, details rife sexual abuse and exploitation in the church as well as blatant attempts to brush them under the carpet.

In June this year, rocked by another sex scandal, the Catholic Church in Kerala removed two priests from the ministry who were accused of of sexually abusing a woman.

The priests, who belonged to the arch-diocese, were suspended pending an investigation. Both have been banned from carrying out priestly duties.

Prior to that, the diocese of Idukki removed yet another priest after videos of his sexual affair with a housewife were published on social media.

“There are so many instances of abuse and it happens behind closed doors. But our fight will continue,” said Sister Lucy Kalappurackal, who was expelled from the Franciscan Clarist Congregation.

She, too, came out with an autobiography in which she recounts sexual abuse taking place in convents.

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