MUMBAI – Police in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka have arrested a Catholic priest for allegedly sexually assaulting a teenager at a church-run school where he serves as principal, though his local bishop is defending the cleric as a “very reliable, committed and upright man.”
Father Francis Fernandes, the principal of the Sacred Heart Pre-University, located in the Diocese of Shimoga in Karnataka, was arrested July 21 after allegations of sexual harassment were presented by a minor whose identity has been withheld.
A case under India’s “Protection Of Children from Sexual Offences Act” was filed by police against the priest, as well as charge of “caste abuse” under a 2016 “Prevention of Atrocities Act,” reflecting the fact that the minor girl who made the accusations is a member of the Banjara community, a traditionally nomadic group with a strong presence in the region.
Members of the Banjara community gathered outside the police station in Shivamogga, where Fernandes was being held, to protest what they described as inaction by the church and to demand swift justice from civil authorities.
According to reports, the protestors said church officials should have taken action against the priest as soon as the allegations were initially presented, but instead, the protestors claimed, they waited for the police to intervene.
Media reports indicate that locals have warned there will be further protests in the area if strict action isn’t taken, and also are claiming there are more such cases that police should investigate.
Fernandes underwent a medical examination before being presented before the court, and was then sent into judicial detention for 14 days.
Bishop Francis Serrao of Shimoga, a member of the Jesuit order, told Crux that he doesn’t want to comment on the legal dimension of the case, since it’s currently making its way through the justice system. He said church officials have tried to secure bail for Fernandes, but a hearing on the request hasn’t yet taken place.
“We have a zero tolerance policy in our diocese, Serrao said. “But the same time, unless a person is proved guilty, he cannot be called guilty.”
“We have no past history of this sort, whatsoever, with Fr. Francis,” the bishop said. “We know him to be very reliable, committed and an upright man. For the first time in his whole life [and] career, such allegations are being levelled and investigations are going on.”
“It is not in our hands, it is already being taken up by the magistrate, and we have to wait for the process,” Serrao said. “All legal aid will be provided by the diocese, as is within his rights as part of his ‘right to defense.’”