One of the Catholic Church’s most senior cardinals has admitted that he could have better handled sexual abuse allegations that were brought to him.
Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Mumbai is one of four men organising a major Vatican conference on child abuse this week.
We found two separate cases where the cardinal, who is tipped by some to possibly become the next Pope, is claimed to have failed to respond quickly or offer support to the victims.
Victims and those who supported them allege that Cardinal Gracias did not take allegations of abuse seriously when they were reported to him.
India’s Catholics say there is a culture of fear and silence in the Catholic Church about sexual abuse by priests. Those who have dared to speak out say it has been an ordeal.
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‘My heart was hurt’
The first case dates back to 2015 in Mumbai.
A woman’s life changed when her son returned from Mass at the church and told her that the parish priest had raped him.
“I could not understand what should I do?” she said. She did not know this yet, but this event would put her on a collision course with the Catholic Church in India.
The man she reached out to for help was and remains one of the most senior representatives of the Church.
It was nearly 72 hours after the alleged rape that the family briefly met Cardinal Gracias, then president of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India and Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.
The issue of sexual abuse within the Church is being called the Vatican’s biggest crisis in modern times, and the integrity of the Catholic Church is said to ride on the outcome of this conference.
Over the past year, the Catholic Church has been reeling under multiple allegations of sexual abuse around the world.
But while abuse claims have made headlines in North and South America, Europe and Australia, very little is known about the problems in Asian countries. In countries such as India there is a social stigma about reporting abuse.
Among Christians, who are a minority of nearly 28 million people, a culture of fear and silence makes it impossible to gauge the true scale of the problem.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago – a colleague of Cardinal Gracias on the four-member organising committee – has promised that decisive action in Rome and in dioceses worldwide will follow after the meeting so as to safeguard children and bring justice to the victims.
Cardinal Gracias will open the second day of the summit with a conversation about accountability in the Church.
This vital role given to him during this crucial conference has made some in India unhappy.
They say his track record in protecting children and women from abusers is questionable. Those we have spoken to who have taken cases to him say they received little support from him.
The mother of the abused boy said: “I told the cardinal about what the priest had done to my child, that my child was in a lot of pain. So he prayed for us and told us he had to go to Rome…my heart was hurt in that moment.
“As a mother, I had gone to him with great expectations that he would think about my son, give me justice, but he said he had no time, he only cared about going to Rome.”
The family say they requested medical help but were offered none.
The cardinal told us it pained him to hear this, and that he was not aware that the boy needed medical help – and if he had been asked, he would have immediately offered it.
The cardinal admits he left for Rome that night without alerting the authorities.
By failing to call the police, Cardinal Gracias may have violated India’s Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO).
The provisions of this law state that if the head of any company or institution fails to report the commission of an offence in respect of a subordinate under his control, they shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, and with a fine.
The cardinal told us he had telephoned his bishop the next day, who told him the family had subsequently informed the police themselves.
Asked if he regretted not calling the police personally at the time, he said: “You know I’m being honest, I’m not 100% sure… but I must reflect on that. I admit whether immediately, the police should have got involved, sure.”
He says he was under a duty to evaluate the credibility of accusations by speaking to the accused man.
Emerging from that meeting, the family decided to go to a doctor.
“He took one look at my boy and said that something has happened to him. This is a police case. Either you report it or I will… so we went to the police that night,” the mother said.
A police medical examination found that the child had been sexually assaulted.
A current priest who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity said this was not the first time allegations about this priest had been brought to the cardinal’s attention.
“I met him some years before this [alleged] incident,” the priest told us.
“There were strong rumours about [the accused priest] in the diocese, and like these are about abuse that is taking place. And yet he seems to be moving from one place to another, one parish to another. The cardinal told me directly that he is not aware directly of all these things.”
The cardinal says he cannot recall the conversation. He says he did not recollect any “cloud of suspicion” over the man.
‘A lonely battle’
As part of our investigation, we wanted to see if there were other allegations of the cardinal being slow to act.
We found an instance dating back almost a decade, brought to his attention just a couple of years after becoming archbishop of Mumbai.
In March 2009, a woman approached him with accusations of sexual abuse by another priest who conducted retreats.
She says that he took no action against the priest so she reached out to a group of female Catholic activists, who say they forced the cardinal to act.
Under pressure, he finally set up an enquiry committee in December 2011. Six months after the enquiry, there was still no action and the accused priest continued working in his parish.
“We had to send the cardinal three legal notices to act, threaten to take the matter to the courts if he did not act,” said Virginia Saldanha, a devout Catholic who has worked on the women’s desk of multiple Church-affiliated positions for over two decades.
When the cardinal replied, he said: “The priest is not listening to me.”
During the time, Saldanha said she had to leave the church because “I could not bear to see that man giving Mass in the church. I did not feel like going there.”
The priest was eventually removed from his parish, but the reasons for his departure were never made public.
The punishment, decided by the cardinal personally in October 2011, was a “guided retreat and therapeutic counselling”.
When we pressed him about the speed of process and punishment, the cardinal said it was a “complicated case”.
After a stay in the seminary, the accused priest was briefly given a parish again and still conducts retreats.
Meanwhile, the family of the allegedly raped minor feel abandoned by the institution that they had built their lives around.
“It has been a lonely battle,” the mother concedes. They say they have been ostracised from the church and isolated within their communities.
“After complaining to the police, when we would go into church, people would refuse to talk to us, to sit next to us during Mass. If I went to sit next to someone… they would get up and leave,” she said.
The hostility she encountered eventually “made us leave the church. But it got so difficult for us that we eventually had to change our home as well. We left it all behind”.
Church members say that it is this hostility that makes it harder for victims and their families to speak up.
Caught between an apparently unsupportive clergy and hostile social network, many find their voices faltering.