Sexual abuse: It is time for the church in India to embrace the #Silenceisnotspiritual and #MeToo movements

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By Joseph D’Souza

“We must worry less about our public image and more about getting justice to women who have been sexually exploited by church leaders in Kerala and elsewhere.”

Some of Jesus’ harshest judgements are against those who abuse and mistreat children and women.

When the #MeToo movement first started gaining steam in the United States in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal last year, everybody was asking the same question: who would be next? It did not take long to get an answer.

American politicians, powerful media executives, and famous news anchors came toppling down after brave women told their stories of abuse, and for once, people believed and heard them. Finally, the movement reached the church, and pastors, even seminary presidents, were held accountable, for their actions and for failing to protect those under their care.

India, now living its own #MeToo moment, is seeing a similar pattern unfold. The wave of reckoning that started with Bollywood’s notorious casting couch and swept over legislators has now reached the Indian church.

Authorities in Kerala are investigating three high-profile cases of sexual assault involving the clergy. In perhaps the most prominent of them, a woman has accused four priests of blackmailing her into sexual exploitation. The Kerala High Court has refused anticipatory bail to the accused, and they could be arrested any day now.

That these cases have come to light as the world debates whether India is a safe place for women underscores the gravity of this national issue.

India must become a nation that is known for empowering women, something we have historically failed to do even though we were among the first countries in the modern world to be led by a woman – Indira Gandhi who was India’s third prime minister, serving from 1966 to 1984 when she was assassinated.

If there is a silver lining to these incidents, it is the reassurance that Indian women are increasingly finding their voice and strength. Victims are rightly no longer afraid to expose religious leaders who have large followings and national influence.

Such was the case with “Rockstar Baba” Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, whose conviction for rape last year triggered riots that left over 20 people dead.

In April, another religious leader, Asaram Bapu, was sentenced to life in prison for rape after his victim and her family spoke out.

While we will have to wait and see what happens with the cases against the church leaders in Kerala as they receive their due process, the sad truth is that Christians in India are not surprised by these revelations. They know there are cases of sexual abuse in the church and that, unfortunately, the tendency has been to sweep them under the rug.

Yet, this is a moment the church must take to examine itself and to reform – that is, if it wants to be a moral voice on this severe problem that plagues Indian society, then the church needs to find a way to deal decisively with abuse within, and continue to work for the rights of women outside.

Here are four measures I would suggest churches across India consider adopting to prevent sexual abuse and to protect and care for its victims:

1) Educate women and children about their rights

India has some of the most stringent criminal laws against sexual abuse in the world. The church as a vehicle for social development – especially in communities where women and children are vulnerable or do not have access to a proper education – must teach them their rights under the law and how to report sexual abuse.

2) Be open and honest when sexual assault allegations surface

However good their intentions may be, church leaders need to be careful not to hide or deal with sexual crimes internally. Each case must be reported to the proper authorities and the law allowed to take its course. It is better to be vindicated by the law than risk destroying someone’s life.

3) Do not react defensively when this sin is publicly exposed

We must worry less about our public image and more about getting justice to those who have been sexually exploited. The true Christian testimony rests not on public image but on how we treat the powerless and those who have suffered injustice. We have seen how the covering up of sexual abuse in other parts of the world has not only damaged the church’s reputation, but also brought pain to innocent people and their families.

4) Make the clergy accountable

At a time when the safety of women in our country is being questioned, the church must insist that as true followers of Jesus Christ, pastors, priests, and bishops are not above reproach in how they relate to women. The church must always be a safe place for women and children.

Church leaders need to practise Christ’s teachings on gender equality and protect the sanctity of women and children.

Some of Jesus’ harshest judgements are against those who abuse and mistreat children and women.

The truth is that there is a larger societal problem in how Indian men, regardless of religion, view women.

Gender discrimination and sexual objectification of women are a stain that India must strive to remove.

As both an advocate for justice and an agent of healing and mercy, the church must rise to the challenge and take these issues head-on.

That is the gospel Jesus has called us to follow.

Reverend Joseph D’Souza is archbishop of the Good Shepherd Church and Associated Ministries of India, and president of the All India Christian Council.

This article first appeared in Scroll.in

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