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Thursday, November 30, 2023

A conspiracy of silence: Sexual harassment of Mary Rajasekaran in Loyola College

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter

-Martin Luther King Jr.

The 95-year-old Loyola College, a Catholic institution in Chennai, looms larger than life. The  premier educational institution is  ranked  sixth in the country by the National Institutional Ranking Framework (2020). Over the years, the Loyola College has become synonymous with academic excellence thanks to its galaxy of distinguished faculty and meritorious students.

However, recently, the Catholic institution seems to be in the limelight for an entirely different reason—the sexual harassment of one of its employees at the workplace. However, the  conspiracy of  silence  and the  cover up  of  this issue  by the college authorities is disconcerting and violative of the rights and dignity of the person concerned.

According to Savio Rodrigues, activist, journalist, Founder and  Editor-in-chief,  Goa Chronicle, Mary Rajasekaran, an employee at the Loyola College, was part of the administrative team and the office of the Loyola alumni association, for over a decade. A committed and  value-based employee, Mary Rajasekaran stumbled  upon an incident of embezzlement of college funds  (worth Rs. 1 crore) by Rev. Fr. S. Xavier Alphonse, former Principal and Director, Loyola  Alumni Association, who reportedly diverted  the funds to his personal trust.

Mary alerted the college administration and reported the matter to the authorities concerned. Shocked at the development, they nevertheless decided to restrict and circumscribe certain rights and privileges of Rev. Fr. Alphonse.

This  assertive and appropriate move “enraged” Rev. Fr. Alphonse, a “powerful priest with the right connections in high places.” It also triggered  a series of sexual  harassment and sexual abuses by the priest on Mary Rajasekaran.

“The sexual harassment and abuse of the victim took place in the precincts of a Catholic institution and her oppressor, a powerful priest protected by the religious cloak he wears,  the global religious institution (the Catholic Church) and a powerful educational institution he represents (Loyola College) and the  even more powerful priestly order (the Jesuits),” says Rodrigues, who highlights the exploitative and manipulative nature of the act that is based on glaring and  gendered power differentials between the oppressor and the oppressed.

Mary, however, refused to be cowed down by  the power game. She  repeatedly brought the issue of sexual harassment she was experiencing  to the notice of the college authorities. However, they dissuaded Mary not to go to the police with a complaint as they feared it would “sully the reputation, honour and goodwill of the institution.” They instead reassured  her  that they would “settle the matter internally.”

It is shocking  that the premier institution did not have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in its campus; nor did it institute an ICC to investigate the issue as part of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, mandated by the Supreme Court as non-negotiable in every organisation that has more than ten employees.

In addition, the implementation of the University Grants Commission (UGC Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 1956,  that  prohibits sexual harassment of women in higher institutions and mandates that all higher education institutions  comply with the rules and regulations stipulated in the Act, was also conspicuously absent in the college campus. Ironically, Fr. Alphonse  was also a two-term member of the UGC!

The comprehensive  Act ensures adequate protection against sexual harassment in all Higher Education Institute (HEI) campuses. All facilities such as libraries, laboratories, lecture halls, residence halls, toilets, hostels, dining halls, canteens, parking areas and parks in HEI campus fall under the purview of the Act. The Act also covers within its scope ‘Extended Campus’ such as transportation provided for the purpose of commuting to and from the institution, and locations outside the institutions such as sports meets, cultural fests etc. where the employee or student of the HEI is participating.

Traumatised as a victim of sexual harassment, and  disappointed at the pervasive apathy  and callousness of the institution, Mary Rajasekaran  filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court in February 2016.

In her petition affidavit in the Madras High Court, Mary Rajasekaran, states, “I further submit that in spite of this, I was continuously harassed by the said Rev. Fr. Xavier Alphonse SJ, over telephone as well as in person at my office in the college campus and whenever I brought these to the knowledge of the management including the Rector of Loyola College, Chennai, herein, I was dissuaded by them from pursuing any action against the said Rev. Fr. Xavier Alphonse SJ, including lodging of Police Complaint, by stating that the name and goodwill painstakingly earned by the Loyola College Institution will be sullied if the matter is made public. They also informed me that steps are being taken to transfer Rev. Fr. Xavier Alphonse SJ, to some other institution by the management and I was asked to wait till then.”

Despite the court issuing notices to  Rev. Fr. Alphonse and the others accused, all of them flagrantly defied the notices by refusing to respond to it since the last four years. Their  behaviour apparently seems influenced by their myth of invulnerability due to access to an influential and powerful lobby in high places. The case proceedings is in a stalemate because the accused have chosen not to respond to the petition. Additionally,  these delay tactics are also being seen as a deliberate attempt  to erode the victim psychologically, emotionally and financially.

The legal wrangle has had other repercussions on Mary’s life. Her employment with the institution was terminated abruptly, there have been fractures and fissures in her social circles and  the community  as many of her friends and acquaintances are from the same religious community.

“I thought a premier educational institution would act more morally and sensitively to the sexual harassment of a woman at the workplace,” says Savio Rodrigues, who spearheads Mary Rajasekaran’s  fight for gender justice. When he raised the issue with the Loyola alumni (which reads like a Who’s Who list), on Twitter, in a retaliatory move, they blocked him, ostensibly because the  victim had the courage to  confront  Rev.  Fr. Aphonse  who heads the alumni association and her ‘audacity’ to confront the college authority.

“The question has been asking Loyola College Chennai and Loyola College Chennai Alumni Association is that when such a grave offence has occurred to a senior lady, a representative of their own college by Fr Xavier Alphonse why has such a prestigious institution and its alumni not fought for the human rights and the modesty of a woman of their own college,” writes Rodrigues.

Rodrigues, who also led from the front in mainstreaming the shocking case of Bishop Franco Mullakal, accused of  repeated rape  and sodomy of  a nun, is  a passionate advocate  against sexual abuse by the clergy in Catholic Church—a rampant  global phenomenon. According to Rodrigues, despite being a widely respected institution, sexual abuse by the  Catholic clergy tends to be “covered up”  because of the overwhelming need  to “protect and safeguard the goodwill, image and respect of the church.”

Pope Francis, the Head of the Catholic Church, at a global summit in Rome in February 2019, reiterated that sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy is an “evil that needs to be eradicated” in Catholic institutions across the world. However, it is still impossible to dislodge the deeply entrenched  patriarchy  and misogynistic institutionalised status quoism that festers in a culture of toxic masculinities, secrecy and silence.

Meanwhile, the All India Christian Forum, of which Savio Rodrigues is the president, has declared its support for the victim. Earlier, the AICF had submitted a petition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address  sexual abuse, corruption and other crimes occurring in different Christian denominational faiths in Bharat, with a special focus on the Catholic Church.

The AICF is  also supported in its crusade for justice for Mary Rajasekaran by the Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA), an international association of activists and survivors of clergy abuse  dedicated to addressing clergy abuse in the Catholic Church. Besides, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) Network, which also figured prominently in the Hollywood film Spotlight about sexual abuse of minors  by Catholic clergy, has extended its support to  Mary Rajasekaran.

Tim Lennon, President, SNAP Network expressed in a message to, “Mary Rajasekaran, a faculty member of Loyola College, seeks justice in the courts yet is blocked by inaction. We call on the court to provide a path to justice for her.”

Based on a  complaint filed by  a founding member of AICF,  the Jesuit Curia in Rome carried out two separate investigations on the Loyola incident. However, the Society of Jesus in Bharat has  been reluctant to place the findings in the public domain. The AICF cites  a similar incident in the US, where the Society of Jesus made public a list of names of Catholic clergy  accused of sexual crimes in January 2019 and the perpetrators rendered written and video apologies to their victims who had survived the abuse.

“Our fight is for justice; not against the Christian faith. Christianity, in matters of faith, is completely different from Christianity in respect to the institution. As concerned Christians and Catholics, we have a zero-tolerance policy to sexual crimes in  a Catholic institution whose members are often partners in collusion and cover ups. Currently, Catholic institutions seem to operate with impunity because they believe they are governed by  the canonical laws (Vatican laws)  and not the laws of the country.

The truth is, internal investigations of church crimes do not work. We need an impartial, secular investigation in order to right the wrongs and prevent repeat occurrences. Only a secular investigation can prevent a corrupt clergy from influencing the  fact finding  and reporting. That the Chennai Jesuit leadership worked behind the scenes to protect their ‘son’ seems evident because the victim was not interviewed  in the initial and the callous response of the Jesuit Curia. It’s time we launched a #ChurchToo movement,” explains Rodrigues.

In Greek mythology, King Augeas kept 3,000 oxen in his stables,  which had not been cleaned for 30 years. The cleaning of these stables was accomplished by Hercules, who diverted the River Alpheus through them.

Perhaps the Augean stables is also a metaphor for a clean-up of the Catholic church. The Herculean task requires authenticity and courage to call out the bluff in spaces where abuse lurks in camouflage; and that the process be redemptive and healing for everyone concerned.

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Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 



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