By Aashika Ravi
“Father, forgive me for I have sinned…” The familiar words accompanied by the wooden booth with its grille and curtain are instantly associated with the Catholic sacrament of confession. But did you know that the box, called Borromeo’s box, was invented by Cardinal Charles Borromeo in the 1570s to stop sexual exploitation of children by priests during confession?
In The Dark Box (2014), British journalist John Cornwell traces the history of the practice of confession through the ages and the many layers of sexual abuse and coercion it is steeped in. Cornwell himself was propositioned by a priest during confession. The book delves into the sexual exploitation and paedophilia intertwined with the evolution of confession as a practice through the ages. The Church and confession, in particular, has always had a complex relationship with sexual abuse, arising from a gross power imbalance and a culture of protecting sexual predators.
In India, few cases of sexual abuse and paedophilia from within the church have surfaced and even when they do, they have been hushed up and forgotten swiftly. Maybe this is why the case of five priests of Malankara Orthodox Church in Thiruvalla, Kerala who sexually exploited a married woman, by blackmailing her using her confession, has sparked nationwide outrage. The woman’s husband complained to the church, after which the five priests were finally suspended on 26 June. An audio clip was apparently circulated on social media with a conversation between the husband and another individual.
“When I confronted her,” the husband allegedly says in the recording, “she said that she was being blackmailed by one of the orthodox priests into having a sexual relationship with him. Many years ago, before we got married, a priest had sexually abused her and was blackmailing her since then. During my daughter’s baptism, she was mentally upset about what was happening and so she confessed her ordeal to another priest, who threatened that he’ll tell this to me. Threatening her so, he demanded sexual favours from her. He even took pictures of them together and shared those pictures with a third priest. He too later started abusing my wife. They kept circulating the videos and now around 5-8 priests are involved.”
Alongside some of the sensible outrage about this incident was also National Commission for Women (NCW) Chairperson Rekha Sharma, who called on 26 July for the abolition of Christian confession altogether. “The priests pressure women into telling their secrets and we have one such case in front of us, there must be many more such cases and what we have right now is just a tip of the iceberg.”
Sharma’s absurd demand fits into the recent wave of overzealousness to eradicate any religious practices people find threatening. Angry responses poured in from all corners of the country, including the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, who called the recommendation “unconstitutional”, and Union minister Alphons Kannanthanam, who has asked the prime minister and home minister to reject the demand.
When the Supreme Court struck down triple talaq as “unconstitutional” last year, people across the country rejoiced. And in the recent PIL to review the constitutionality of female genital cutting in the Dawoodi Bohra community, the triple talaq verdict was cited as precedent that harmful cultural practices could be struck down if they were in violation of the Constitution. Similarly, the Supreme Court has also been hearing the Sabarimala case of excluding women from the temple.
However, there is a world of difference between these cases of women’s religious subjugation being argued in front of the apex court and Sharma’s demand. The call for state intervention in cultural and religious practices is justified only when the call comes through a strong debate from within the respective community itself.
Shalini Mulackam, former president of the Indian Theological Association, explains the principle behind confession. “We have seven Sacraments which means seven ways that we encounter God. One among these Sacraments is Confession. When a person feels estranged from God or has committed a sin, he/she has to return to God or reconcile with Him. The priest who sits there is on behalf of God, and if he tells us that God has forgiven you, you repent, the person who confesses can feel that God has accepted me back, and has forgiven my sins, and the person feels very light-hearted.”
The power of confession, according to her, lies precisely in the physical act of confessing in church.
Sharon (name changed) goes to confession once in three months but wishes she could go more often. “For me, it helps to reconcile myself with God. It’s an outlet of grace through which my sins are forgiven by God, acting through the priest. It’s basically a way for me to come closer to God,” she says.
Oshin Tresa Francis, a Syro-Malabar Roman Catholic, also claims that the act of confession carries great meaning for her. “Confession is one thing we believe can help us achieve salvation. Confession, for me, is something that no one else in the world is going to know except that one priest.”
The confidentiality that Francis refers to has actually been codified in many countries as a priest-penitent privilege. Priests are not allowed to divulge the information they learn in confession, even in court, or they are excommunicated from the church. (There are no specific provisions to address priest-penitent privilege in Indian law.)
Of course, the five priests of Thiruvalla did much more than just violate the priest-penitent privilege. This is also not a lone incident. In March last year, the Kerala Christian Reformation Movement (KCRM) staged a protest in Kochi, demanding that nuns be allowed to hear confessions. One of the reasons for this demand was reportedly the fact that male priests had asked for “more details in cases of sexual ‘sins’.” We too examined the possibility of having nuns listen to confession and whether that would actually be as beneficial as people assumed.
Despite the severity of the Thiruvalla priests’ crimes, the solution to Sharma’s ‘iceberg’ cannot be the abolishment of confession unless the demand comes from within the respective community, and especially from the women there. Mulackam similarly cites the example of Asaram Bapu, a godman who raped women in his ashram and threatened and murdered witnesses. “We cannot ban the Hindu sanyasa way of life, or throw the entire institution out, because one godman did something he shouldn’t have done.”
Legally, too, the precedent set by the Supreme Court in the triple talaq case indicates that the only grounds on which cultural and religious practices can be banned are if they are found to be unconstitutional, whereas confession remains a voluntary practice and banning it could amount to a violation of a citizen’s Freedom of Expression (Article 19 (a)).
So where does confession fit into the current legal interventions in religious and cultural practices? Senior lawyer Rebecca John says, “I feel that there is a movement for religious practices and groups to self-introspect and self-regulate. We are noticing, with respect to several incidents that have come out of Kerala, and even globally, where the church is guilty of going slow on issues relating to sexual exploitation of women.” She adds that Sharma’s statement is “random” and not worth taking seriously, but her larger point is that no religious practice should be above question.
“If there is a vast majority of women complaining of a crime, I don’t think religious institutions should be allowed to plead Fundamental Rights with respect to Freedom of Religious customs. I think those should and can be questioned. It’s important for more religious institutions, including the church, to look at these things positively. Not everything is an attack on freedom to propagate their own religious practice. Some of it comes from within. Members of their own community are complaining, why should that not be looked into?” she argues.
In the bigger picture, it’s imperative for religious institutions like the church to reform regressive or oppressive practices. If the Supreme Court’s verdict on triple talaq and its recent statements on female genital cutting say anything about the zeitgeist, it’s that freedom of religious practice is not untouchable, and these cases may well come as a reckoning for those who think it is.
Co-published with Firstpost.