06/02/2005, 00.00
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Catholic priest arrested for pedophilia in a Hindu fundamentalist plot

by Nirmala Carvalho
Hindus want to stop Tribals from getting a Catholic education so as to better control them, says the Bishop of Amravati. Government and press are abetting the whole thing. "The authorities should wake up; such episodes are the seed of a great tragedy", says human rights activist.

Amravati (AsiaNews) – The arrest of a Catholic priest for alleged child molestation is being used by Hindu fundamentalist to tarnish the reputation of the Catholic Church. Whilst this is happening the central government remains indifferent.

The alleged incident is said to have occurred in Amravati, Maharashtra state, but the local Bishop has defended the priest, saying that the accusations are false. Instead, he has charged Hindu extremists with setting up the Catholic clergyman in an attempt to stop Tribals (Adivasi) from getting a Catholic education.

In talking about the case of Fr Gervas Fernandes, Mgr Edwin Colaço, Bishop of Amravati, described to AsiaNews what happened.

On May 20, Father Fernandes was arrested after the parents of an 11-year-old boy accused the priest of sexually molesting their son—the boy had been living in a hostel managed by the Church inside the compound of the local Cathedral.

The previous day Father Fernandes was preparing to go to his new mission station when he asked the boy to accompany him. Hence, he asked him to change from his home clothes into something more appropriate for travelling outside the village.

The boy's father told the police that the priest then called his son to his room and coerced the boy into giving him a body massage.

Following standard procedure in such cases, the police sent the priest and the boy for medical examinations. But the results have not been released yet. Through it all, Father Fernandes maintains his innocence.

For Bishop Colaço, the arrest is based on false accusations instigated by Hindu fundamentalists to discredit the educational and development activities of the Church among local Tribals.

"The boy's family later tried to retract the complaint but was forced to retain it under pressure from Hindu radicals, who would like to exploit the situation." Bishop Colaço said. "The family came to me later and said they regretted their complaint, which they did in a fit of rage," he added.

On May 21, about 100 young militants from the Bharatiya Janata Party (a party linked to Hindu fundamentalists) demonstrated in front of the Bishop's House, demanding action against a priest accused of pedophilia.

On May 22, Father Fernandes was released on bail, but chose to stay from the Cathedral to avoid violent actions by extremists. He will be tried under India's Penal Code for unnatural offences that carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Bishop Colaço is concerned with the situation of the local Church and Christian Tribals, especially since Father Fernandes's case is not an isolated one. "These false allegations of child molestation are a tragedy.  The clergy and nuns in the diocese of Amravati give their lives for these poor illiterate people," he said.

As far he is concerned, Hindu fundamentalists want to stop young Tribals from receiving an education in Church-run colleges even if it is against the interests of the people. "The living conditions of these children are pitiful. Were it not for the vocations and vision of our priests, they would grow up uneducated, malnourished and without dignity," he stressed.

What is worse, Father Fernandes's case is being used by Hindu fundamentalists to mount a meticulous campaign against the Catholic presence in the region by staging demonstrations, making threats and thanks to media complicity.

A local BJP worker said that "[e]veryone must know what happened. We are not going to leave this issue so easily." But although the accused priest is Indian, the he said his people would not allow "firangi padri" (foreign priests) to destroy "our culture."

According to Bishop Colaço, the local press has covered the case superficially and irresponsibly, one paper going as far as carrying a headline that read: "Bishop of Amravati arrested for paedophilia." The report claimed that police had arrested a "42-year-old bishop" in "connection with a pedophilia allegation."

The situation is made worse by the indifference of local and central authorities. The Bishop wrote to Maharashtra's Home Minister and Chief Minister to complain about the defamatory press coverage of the case and about the arrest itself which was done without any evidence and in the absence of an attorney.

John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Catholic Union, said that several times he complained to the Congress Party about the violence perpetrated by Hindu fundamentalists. "I would like to hope the central government will wake up. This is causing great distress in predominantly Tribal areas. Such episodes are the seed of a great tragedy," he warned.

In the past, the diocese of Amravati was the scene of other violent incidents instigated by Hindu fundamentalists. Back in February, they threatened 250 Catholics in one village, demanding they stop practicing their faith and organising 'ceremonies of conversion back to Hinduism".

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