A gang of students belonging to the Student Federation of India attacked Father Geo Pulickal, principal of the Catholic-run Nirmalagiri College at Koothuparamba in north Kerala. SFI students allege that the principal is a sodomite and subjected a college student to sodomy and two priests were involved in a ragging case in the college hostel. Posters depicting the priests and nuns in bad light appeared on the college campus.
The tug of war between the SFI activists and the Catholic church over the attack on Father Pulickal reached a flashpoint when Nirmalagiri College was closed last month and later re-opened after mediations between the Church officials and the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist.
Is the vow of celibacy that priests and nuns adopt to serve the Catholic church in Kerala becoming suspect? Why are increasing numbers of sex scandals involving the clergy coming up in the state?
Church leaders, especially those belonging to the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala are upset as social groups are mounting protests for trying to protect priests like Father Karthikapally from the clutches of civil law.
But Catholic activists who have launched a movement against the church claim that cases of priests caught in sex crimes are increasing in the state. "It seems priests in Kerala are losing their faith and virginity. We know the names of many priests who deliberately fail to keep their sacred pledge of a celibate lifestyle," says Sebastian Vattamattam, secretary of Kottayam-based Vikas Institute that has raked up the sex scandal involving Father Cyriac Karthikapally.
"Priests are sinning against their church and the community. But their crimes have thrown up legal, ethical and moral issues for debate within the church and the catholic community," he said.
Vattamattom, a college professor in the Changanacherry archdiocese-run Saint Berchman's College, is one of the many active Catholics who have launched a movement against what they call "erring and immoral priests and nuns."
Critics like him cite many reasons why priests and nuns are stepping out of their pastoral and missionary duties to the forbidden paths. "All the modern priests are very educated and rich. They are exposed to the world and lured by the luxuries of the modern world. They are spiritually corrupt and indulge in all sorts of immoral activities," accuses Vattamattam.
Kurian Verghese, a Catholic activist in Kochi, who himself left priestly studies mid-way and became an engineer later, says the fault lies with the seminaries. "Seminaries where students are trained and moulded to become priests are old-fashioned. They are taught philosophy and theology of the old order without any freedom of thought or action," he points out.
"I left the seminary after five years because I felt suffocated. So I think once they are out of seminaries, the present generation of young priests are attracted by the outside world which they have never seen or experienced," Verghese says.
"I know many priests who drink and womanise regularly. But they still remain within the dioceses and pastoral ministry and serve the local people. Our social set-up is such that a priest giving up the cassock for marriage is a butt of ridicule," he said.
Therefore, he says, the best thing that the church should aim for is to encourage those "immoral priests" to get out of the church services and help them get married.
But Church officials point out that some of the sex scandals rocking the Catholic community in Kerala are "stray instances" and have been blown out of proportion by "some misguided catholic activists."
According to Bishop Thomas Chakiath of Ernakulam archdiocese, it is sad that "some vested interests have launched a smear campaign against the church basing their arguments on some stray incidents."
"Of course, there have been incidents in which priests were accused of disobeying the sacred order of celibacy. But it is improper to accuse that the church is plagued by sex scandals," he said.
Bishop Chakiath said often priests who indulge in immoral activities leave their pastoral job and embrace matrimony. "But these all are very rare instances and they do not mean that the church has lost its mission, unity and integrity," he asserted.
However, according to Professor M J George, a member of the action council that is now pursuing the Father Karthikapally case the gravest mistake within the church is that "it itself is the protector of criminal clergy."
George said when the Father Karthikapally sex scandal rocked the Changanacherry archdiocese, what the Archbishop did was to get him tried in the diocese's own tribunal, which "punished" him by removing him from the pastoral ministry and offering remuneration to the girl.
"The accused priest is still with the diocese. His residence is provided by the diocese and he is protected by the church while his daughter is growing up in an orphanage," George said.
Catholic activists claim in many dioceses across Kerala, many "clerical gangsters" have come up. "Our information is that Father Karthikapally used to take the minor girl to his priest friends in other parishes. They had actually formed a sex racket involving many girls," says Vattamattam.
But Changanacherry Archdiocese Chancellor Father Gregory Naduviledam refutes the charges levelled by the church pressure groups. "They are misguided activists who are acting with some vested interests against the church," he said.
As for Father Karthikapally sex case, he said, the diocesan tribunal decided to try the priest after the victim's parents approached Archbishop Joseph Powathil for a settlement on the case from the church side.
"In the tribunal the priest confessed to his crime. We found him guilty and punished him by relieving him of all pastoral duties. He is now living in a remote village without serving any parish or other diocesan institutes," Father Naduviledam said.
As to the accusation that the diocese did not take the case to the police, he said "it was not the duty of the church." "It was the duty of the offended party to approach the police. But the girl's parents instead wanted that the priest should be tried by the church tribunal only," Father Naduviledam added.
According to Father Paul Thelakkat, editor of Sathyadeepam, a popular Catholic weekly, "It is an unfair argument that the church has lost its image because one among thousands of its priests is involved in a sex scandal."
"In every religious society and community in the world, there are erring members. The Catholic church considers the rare instances of sex scandals in Kerala as insignificant," he asserted.
One of the first sex scandals that rocked the Kerala church was in the 1970s, that too in the Changanacherry diocese. A diocesan priest, Father Benedict entered into a sexual relationship with Mariakutty, a regular church-goer. But when their relationship began doing the rounds, Father Benedict allegedly killed Mariakutty.
Father Benedict was arrested and fought the case in many courts for years, but was later set free for want of sufficient evidence of murder.
Old timers recall when Father Benedict was acquitted and released, he was given a warm reception by the Changanacherry archdiocese.
"I think this is the fault with the church. It does not punish those priests who break their celibacy and seek immoral means of life. But the church is always eager to protect the clergy who are found guilty," says Joseph Punnen, a devout catholic who had launched a movement against Father Benedict in 1970s.