Sex scam in Indian churches raises questions on relevance of confession

A federal body in India with the mandate of protecting and promoting the interests of women has demanded the abolition of confession in churches following a sex scandal involving some priests who allegedly raped a woman over decades by threatening to break the Seal of Confession.

Church groups are vehemently opposing the move by the National Commission for Women (NCW).

The sex scandal involving five priests of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in the southern state of Kerala came to light after an audio clip of a phone talk between the unnamed woman’s husband and a church official went viral on social media this year.

The husband was speaking to the official after he found a hotel bill in his wife’s name and the woman, on being questioned, told him the truth.

Later, she narrated to police how a priest forced her into sex in the 1990s when she was a still minor. When she confessed to a second priest, he too forced her into sex and allegedly video recorded the act. He then passed the information and video to another priest, who had sex with the woman. Two more priests allegedly abused her.

The five priests are facing charges of rape and blackmail.

Churches play a proud and positive role in Kerala where they run several top institutions in the education and health care sectors. Christians make up 18% of Kerala’s population and churches enjoy immense political clout.

Expressing concern over the slow progress of the priests’ case, NCW’s chair Rekha Sharma late last month requested the federal government to outlaw confession in all churches by arguing that the practice is being grossly abused by priests to blackmail vulnerable women.

Various church groups found Sharma’s recommendation shocking and unacceptable.

The proposed ban violates religious freedom and hurts the religious sentiments of India’s Christian minority. It is unconstitutional and is an attack on the Christian faith and spiritual practice, they said.

NCW’s recommendation is absurd and exposes their ignorance of the sanctity of the sacrament of confession. Isolated cases like that of the five priests do not warrant a blanket ban on confession, they argued.

Sharma said there must be many more such cases and what has come to light may be just a tip of the iceberg.

Despite stiff resistance by church groups against the ban, believers are divided on the relevance of confession in the light of the sex scandal.

Many of them feel church is facing a crisis as a dozen priests have been named in various sex scandals in Kerala over the past one year. They believe it is time religious leaders reform themselves.