The following report on the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church—part of the Oriental Orthodox communion—comes from Kerala, a state on the southwest coast of India. Orthodoxy in Dialogue is publishing it not in order to advocate for abolishing confession, but to shine a light on related questions for discussion in an Eastern Orthodox context.
The article focuses on priests accused of using women’s confessions to blackmail them into sexual submission and silence after the assault. Without minimizing the gravity of these allegations, we raise a number of questions on other possible, less direct connections between confession and crime:
- Have cases similar to those cited in the following article occurred in our churches, i.e., priests using the confession of serious sin to blackmail or otherwise abuse those who have confessed to them?
- Do our dioceses/jurisdictions/national churches have policies in place to govern priests when someone confesses a crime to them?
- If yes, what are they? If no, why not? Should we have such guidelines?
- How have priests actually handled the confession of crimes? For priests who have never experienced this, how do they imagine themselves handling it?
- Does the nature or seriousness of the crime make a difference in how priests should handle it vis-à-vis law enforcement? For instance, shoplifting vs. sexual assault?
- In theory are there ever instances in which a priest—without the penitent’s consent or knowledge—might, should, or even must divulge to law enforcement something that he has heard in confession?
- Does the Roman Catholic Church have any policies on this that might be relevant to our discussion?
- Are these kinds of questions addressed in pastoral theology courses at Orthodox seminaries?
We welcome thoughtful responses from clergy, hierarchy, and laity.
The National Commission for Women (NCW), submitting a report on the two sex scandals in churches in Kerala, has recommended the government should abolish confessions in churches as “they come in the way of security and safety of women.”
The National Commission for Women (NCW), submitting a report on the two sex scandals in churches in Kerala, has recommended that the government should intervene to abolish the practice of confession in churches as “they come in the way of security and safety of women.”
NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma said the commission has sought a probe by a central agency into the two scandals that surfaced last month: one involving four priests of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the second one accusing the Bishop of Jalandhar, Franco Mulakkal, of rape.
“We have recommended a probe by a central agency into these scandals because such incidents are on a rise in Kerala. An investigative agency should probe into these matters. They should go deep into it to see how many churches are involved in these incidents,” Sharma said.
The commission which has prepared a report on the scandals after meeting the victims is sending it to the Home Ministry and copies of it to Kerala and Punjab governments.
“We have recommended that confession should abolished from the church. It is being misused by the priests. Many women are suffering. Women cannot share their private life with priests,” Sharma told The Indian Express.
The Bishop of Jalandhar was accused by a nun in Kottayam district of Kerala of raping her on several occasions between 2014 and 2016. The nun filed a complaint with the police on June 27.
The scandal in the Orthodox church brought “confession,” one of the seven sacraments of the Church, under a cloud. The husband of the victim complained to Church authorities that at least five priests were sexually exploiting his wife by blackmailing her making use of the secret confession she made to them on separate occasions.
Sharma claimed there could be more such incidents. “The confession could give an opportunity for the priests to exploit even men. With women, they can sexually exploit them. But with men, they could blackmail them for money. So this confession should go from the churches,” Sharma said.
Asked if the NCW could make a recommendation that affects essential customs of a religious community, Sharma said: “If religious customs and practices are coming in the way of security and safety of women, NCW can definitely seek remedies. The women should not confess, especially before men. If we do not raise such issues and try to make changes, who will?”
Sharma said many churches make confession compulsory to conduct marriages and baptise children. “Many women cannot withstand the social pressure,” she said.
Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, said that the NCW proposal was “unacceptable” because it was “a direct encroachment into the freedom of a believer.”
“Confession is an issue of faith. Faith is expressed through practices and confession is an expression of a believer to God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. It can be understood only in terms of faith,” Cardinal Cleemis told The Indian Express.
“The Constitution, through Article 25, provides rights to profess, practice and propagate religion. So by proposing this abolition of confession, the NCW is encroaching on that freedom…I doubt if the Commission has such powers.”
“The dignity of women should be promoted. Crimes against them should be punished, whoever commits it, priest or a nun…We would like to see how the Government of India is responding to this proposal,” the Archbishop said.
The NCW urged the Punjab police and Kerala police to act swiftly. “FIRs should be filed and action should be taken in stipulated time. A lot of time has been wasted. Also, the women victims, should get help from the state government,” Sharma said.
Sharma also alleged that some authorities were hand in glove with the accused. “Until now they (the accused in both cases) have not been removed from the Church. They are sent on leave…Once things are cooled down, they will come back.”
This article appeared on July 27, 2018 with a longer title on The Indian Express.
Liz Mathew is an associate editor at The Indian Express and a member of Women in Media.