The Catholic community will be paying close attention to the legal and ecclesiastic proceedings—this is the first case to come to light after the Catholic Bishop Conference of India (CBCI) set a protocol to deal with child sexual abuse by the clergy, that was then approved by the Vatican.
The Shivaji Nagar police arrested Fr Lawrence Johnson on Nov 27 for allegedly abusing a 13-year-old boy at a church. Johnson, now in judicial custody, was arrested under Section 377 (Unnatural sex) and several sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.
“The charges are grave and we have taken the allegations seriously,” said Fr Nigel Barrett, spokesperson for the Archdiocese. As per the recently formulated protocol, the three-member committee appointed by the diocese will conduct a thorough investigation and submit a report to the cardinal. That report will be sent onward to Rome, and if the Vatican decides there is due cause, another line of investigation may be ordered. Based on final findings, the accused could be suspended or defrocked.
“The cardinal set up the investigation committee even before the priest was taken into custody,” said Barrett. The church’s investigation will only rule on Johnson’s fitness as a spiritual leader, and it will in no way interfere with the criminal proceedings. Johnson has served in the clergy for 15 years, at four churches in the city.
The Catholic community’s heightened interest in what transpires has much to do with His Holiness Pope Francis, who been very vocal about not sweeping sexual abuse under the vestaments. “Pope Francis has clearly outlined a zero tolerance policy towards sex abuse. Hence the Archdiocese of Bombay must follow to ensure that the set call is implemented,” said Dolphy D’souza, former president of Bombay Catholic Sabha. “It has to be handled sensitively and it should also set an example.”
Anil Joseph, another member of the community, also embraced the change, saying, “Such incidents of sexual crimes and paedophilia by priests, not just among the catholic clergy but other religions too, were often brushed under the carpet in the past. The community will not allow this to continue.”
Senior police inspector Balasaheb Jadhav said that the medical examination of the boy has confirmed injury due to sexual assault. “The case is still under investigation. The statement of the boy will be recorded before the magistrate next week. We have sent samples to the Forensic Science Laboratory and are awaiting conclusive reports.”