Father Lawrence Johnson (55), a priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay, was sentenced to life imprisonment on December 29 by a special court dealing with sexual assaults against minors for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old boy.
The Catholic priest was also charged with violating numerous sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
Cardinal Gracias, who is also the Archbishop of Bombay, in one of his statements asserted that “as the matter has now been concluded in the courts, I am recommending to the Roman Offices that the canonical proceedings which were suspended because of the ongoing hearings should now be resumed.”
Father Johnson was arrested on 02 December 2015, and charged with several sections for having engaged in “sexual activities against the natural order” with a boy who was just 13 years old at the time.
Soon after the arrest of the priest, archdiocesan spokesperson Father Nigel Barret informed UCA News that the archdiocese will send the outcomes of its inquiry to the Vatican to determine the canonical procedure. If convicted, Father Johnson will be laicized, he asserted.
It was the first publicly reported case of clerical sex abuse after November 2015, when the Church in India enforced a Vatican-approved system to deal with allegations of sexual assault by Catholic clergy.
The current Vatican system provides for instant suspension of a priest from clerical order if a diocesan legal proceeding finds him guilty of sexual assault.
Father Johnson’s “faculties for public ministry were withdrawn” soon after the allegations came to the fore and “the same situation continues,” Father Barret informed media persons on January 4.
He said that the canonical procedure against Father Johnson was suspended in order not to hamper the prosecution against him in the civil court.
“Since that the procedures of the civil court have now concluded, we have resumed the canonical process,” he stated.
The boy’s parents had filed a police complaint alleging that the priest had lured the boy into a room after the church prayers on 27 November, 2015, and molested him. A medical examination of the boy four days later confirmed the allegation.
The parents also accused the authorities of the church of trying to shield the offence and protect the priest. But Church officials have clearly dismissed the allegations.
The cardinal explained that he had to leave for Rome hours after the complaint was filed and as such assigned an auxiliary bishop to contact the police, supervise the hearings and maintain contact with the family.
“As per our record, the Church hearings began the following day after the complaint was lodged. Father Lawrence was immediately arrested and the priests were asked to meet the family,” said Cardinal Gracias.
He additionally stated that repeated invitations by his secretary to the victim’s parents to discuss the necessity of any assistance to the victim received no positive response. “This invitation still stands,” he guaranteed while informing that the victim was recently admitted to a Church institution at the intervention of his office.
“I continue to pray for the victim and his family. I can feel their pain, anguish and anger. I wish that they will experience healing and peace. I also pray for Father Lawrence Johnson,” said Cardinal Gracias in the statement.
The cardinal stated that he “deeply sympathized” with the victim and his family even as he was “very distressed” to know about the conviction of Father Lawrence for “aggravated sexual abuse on a 13-year-old.”
“I ask pardon that a Church representative, who was appointed to be in charge of the community, perpetrated this offence,” he said.
Indian bishops at their biennial meeting held in Bengaluru in February 2019 had pledged to observe zero tolerance for any sort of act relating to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
They also agreed to take appropriate action against offenders, regardless of their position or standing in the Church, if they are found to have committed the offence.
The bishops also underlined the importance of showing sympathy and care for the ones subjected to such abuse, as well as assisting them in regaining the confidence to lead a new life.
The prelates had decided to “constitute an appropriate mechanism with requisite infrastructure and time-bound procedures to redress cases of sexual assault” allowing survivors to receive instant relief from society’s discrimination and humiliation.
They also pledged not to shield any case of abuse from prosecution by civil authorities.
The Catholic Church has a large history of overshadowing crimes committed by priests who have raped and molested their parishioners all across the world. In fact, the Church has used all sorts of coercive tactics starting from threat to monitory inducement to cover up the crimes of its clergy.