Bombay archbishop among 3 pastors booked in POCSO case

The main accused in the fresh FIR was out on bail in another POCSO case. He is now absconding.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal
Date:
Article image
  • Share this article on whatsapp

After several police complaints, a family’s months-long ordeal, and intervention by the country’s top human rights panel, three priests have finally been booked in a case filed in Pune under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. The main accused remains absconding while two prominent priests have been accused of suppressing the alleged sexual abuse of a 15-year-old boy at his home in September last year.

Notably, the main accused, Father Vincent Pereira, 56, was out on bail in another case of sexual misconduct when he committed the alleged crime. In 2018, as the principal of St Patrick’s High School, Pereira was accused of sexually abusing a class 8 student after showing him pornographic videos, and spent nearly 18 months in Yerwada jail in another POCSO case.

Thomas Dabre, 77, the bishop of Pune diocese, and Cardinal Oswald Gracias, 70, the Archbishop of Bombay, allegedly did not act against Pereira despite being informed by the survivor’s family, according to the fresh FIR. The latest alleged incident, in fact, took place when Pereira stepped out of a pastoral centre, where he was residing after the bail, apparently in violation of parish rules.

Questions have also been raised about the police’s conduct. The 15-year-old’s family claimed that they visited five police stations over three months following the alleged incident in December last year, seeking an FIR to be registered, but a case was filed only after they approached two activists in Pune in August.

Activists Maruti Bhapkar and Dominique Lobo allegedly didn’t get a quick response either. They first wrote to the Pune police commissioner on August 17 but were compelled to approach the National Human Rights Commission in September after failing to get a reply. The NHRC recorded the statement of the 15-year-old’s family and issued a notice to the police. An FIR was subsequently lodged over Bhapkar’s complaint at the Hadapsar police station on September 30 and later transferred to Kondhwa.

Asked about the delay in the filing of FIR, police commissioner Amitabh Gupta told Newslaundry to “please talk to the deputy commissioner of police about it”. Gupta claimed the main accused has been arrested and “we are conducting the inquiry on the other two”.

However, Kondhwa police station inspector Sardar Patil said, “Pereira is absconding but we will arrest him soon. We haven’t arrested the bishop and the cardinal as it seems they were not involved in the act, but we have not given them any clean chit. We have booked them for not reporting the crime despite being aware of it.”

Cardinal Gracias has earlier been accused of failing to respond to allegations of sexual abuse. In 2019, BBC pointed out two such cases. He did not respond to Newslaundry’s requests for comment. This report will be updated if a response is received.

Newslaundry saw a copy of the FIR and the NHRC notice, and spoke to police and activists involved with the case.

Bishop Dabre, however, has denied the charge that he tried to suppress the alleged incident. “As far as I am concerned, this whole thing is fabricated and false. I immediately informed the police in April…I only act according to church law. You have to understand that I am beholden to the civil authorities whom I obey but I am also beholden to the Pope and his staff. I have reported the matter to them and I have been doing what I was told by them…My job was only to inform the police, my job was not to file the FIR…I cannot go beyond my brief…I am in charge of the Pune diocese and have to take care of many things,” he told Newslaundry.

Role of other priests and culture of ‘secrecy’

The 15-year-old was allegedly sexually abused when Pereira visited his home in Pune in September last year. After the boy told his parents what had happened, they confronted Pereira and informed Bishop Dabre on December 12 last year. The family also reported the alleged incident to Wilfred Fernandes, the then director of  Navsadhana Pastoral Centre of the diocese, where Pereira was a fellow. Fernandes also spoke to Dabre about the matter in January.

subscription-appeal-image

Support Independent Media

This is not an ad. An ad would never fund a story like this. Would you? Pay for free, fair, robust journalism that isn’t influenced by advertisers.

Contribute

The family reportedly met Dabre four times requesting action against Pereira, but the bishop delayed the matter, before eventually telling the family to approach the police if they wanted. 

The family allegedly visited Hadapsar, Kondhwa, Wanawadi, Bund Garden, and Pune railway station police stations over December, January and February with a complaint, but no FIR was filed. They then requested to meet Cardinal Gracias, who responded to them on the phone in March.

On April 10, three priests of the Pune diocese, the parents of two survivors, and Pereira’s brother met inside a church on Solapur Road. The next day, one of these three priests, Father Wilfred Francis, wrote to the Kondhwa police station with a complaint on the direction of the bishop of Pune. But neither was an FIR nor the case followed up, until the parents of the 15-year-old met the two activists in August.

Incidentally, the family was close to Pereira and had even helped him when he was jailed in the previous POCSO case, sources said. After his bail, he was staying at the Navsadhana Pastoral Centre where he was not allowed to step out without Dabre’s permission. But he apparently violated these rules. On December 4 last year, he allegedly sexually abused the boy by touching his private parts during a visit to the latter’s house. In November, he allegedly made lewd comments while seeing the family off at Pune railway station.

Newslaundry spoke to the family of the survivor. They claimed to have immediately informed the bishop when they came to know about the alleged incident. They said that when Dabre did not show interest, they also approached the archbishop “but he also didn’t take any initiative to take any action against Pereira”. “Neither the church nor the police authorities came to our rescue to get justice for our child.”

Bhapkar said the accused has been protected by both the priests. “In  2018, when he committed the crime, we communicated to both Dabre and Gracias repeatedly to take action against Pereira. But they didn’t act. Now, again in this case, they were sitting silently.”

Lobo claimed that Pereira had also sexually abused a teenage staffer when he was a principal at another school in Solapur, but the issue was allegedly suppressed by church authorities. “As per rules under the POCSO Act, the person in charge of the institution needs to report such cases to the police…none of them took any action against the accused person. Police are under a lot of pressure as the matter involves high-profile people.”

Virginia Saldanha, a women rights activist who has held various positions within the church, said a patriarchal structure within the Catholic church “put in place a culture that automatically silences the victims”. “They even introduced laws to maintain secrecy.  Although this law of secrecy was removed in 2019, some church authorities still follow it. Whenever anyone raises a voice over cases of sexual abuse, that person is targeted and defamed. They are termed as someone trying to spoil the name of the church. Unfortunately, this culture prevails.”

Anuradha Sahasrabuddhe of Childline India, an organisation working against child abuse, said, “As per POCSO Act, any person who comes to know of child abuse has to abide by the law to report it to the police. If they don’t do it, then they are also liable for punishment as per the law. If police don’t report it, they are also liable for punishment.”

You may also like