ROME – One of the organizers appointed by Pope Francis to plan a February 21-24 summit at the Vatican on sexual abuse of vulnerable people has been accused of covering up abuse in his own archdiocese in India by one of his former collaborators.
“My bishop is among the organizers, which left me perplexed,” said Indian-born Virginia Saldanha, a former director of the women’s commission of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, “What is he going to do? Come up with more cover-up ideas?”
Saldanha was referring to Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, who also serves on Francis’s “C-9” council of cardinal advisors. Gracias was appointed to organize the long-awaited gathering of the heads of bishops’ conferences from around the world and experts from various fields for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults.
With 20 years of experience within the Indian Church, Saldanha had a front-row seat to the rapid changes that led to the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandha for sexually abusing a religious sister 13 times.
“Several women would come to me and tell me about this problem,” she said, retelling the first cases when lay and religious women would come to her to tell her about sexual abuse, adding that it was “a topic of conversation only among women.”
After the East Asia Bishops’ Institute on Women conference held in Taiwan in 2010, a young woman visited her to tell her experience of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest during a spiritual retreat called “discuss and discern.” The woman, who was recovering from trauma and looking for spiritual direction, told Saldanha that she was raped by the priest who claimed that God was healing her though him.
The alleged victim also said that she had reached out to the archbishop and his two vicars for guidance but got no response.
Saldanha had seen the alleged abuser priest at her own parish and connected the dots surrounding the mystery of his presence. Collecting a group of activists and survivors, including other alleged victims of abuse by the same priest, she went before Gracias to demand action and an internal investigation.
Gracias told her that he “was too busy” and agreed to creating an investigative committee only after Saldanha told him to appoint a bishop in his stead, she said. After protocol was followed, with victims giving their testimony of the facts, Gracias told Saldanha that the documentation was sent to the Vatican where it received no response.
It wasn’t until Christmastime, six months later, that the priest was finally sent away from the parish, she said. When Saldanha asked Gracias why he didn’t tell the parish the reason why the priest was sent away, she claims he answered: “I don’t have to give you an answer. Our meeting is over.”
She also said that after her advocacy on behalf of the victims of clerical sexual abuse, she was ostracized by her parish and no longer included in community activities.
Though Saldanha refused to give any names, her account may refer to Father Conrad Saldanha (no relation to Virginia.) In a 2014 article by the Indian daily Mumbai Mirror, the priest complained about poor conditions he experienced in the Archdiocesan Seminary in Goregaon East, an indication that actions had been taken by the archdiocese.
The Archdiocese of Mumbai responded with a statement saying that they had “received allegations of serious misconduct by Father Conrad Saldanha. An inquiry was conducted and, based on the findings of the inquiry committee, appropriate remedial measures were imposed. These remedial measures included a guided retreat and therapeutic counselling in Bangalore.”
But the statement, dated Aug. 2, 2014, also claimed that “Cardinal Gracias had made more than one attempt to reach out to Father Saldanha” and met with other priests “in order to engage in an amicable dialogue and to ascertain if there was another place at which Father Saldanha would like to reside.”
Saldanha said Tuesday that while she was pressing Gracias to take action against him, he replied that the priest was not collaborating or providing his testimony and that he “didn’t listen” to the bishop.
Saldanha told Crux that the priest is now out of the seminary and performing his priestly ministry. She claimed that when she and a group of activists “made noise,” they were asked by Gracias, “How long do you expect him to be punished?”
Saldanha told her story during a conference titled “Overcoming Silence – Women’s Voices in the Abuse Crisis” organized by the Voices of Faith group, which took place in downtown Rome Nov. 27. The event was aimed at bringing forward stories relevant to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
The Carlos Saldanha case was not the only one she recounted during the four-hour conference. She also alleged that in 2016, a priest accused of sexually abusing two sibling orphans in the Archdiocese of Mumbai was sent on “sabbatical” to Canada for one year before being allowed to return to the parish.
Saldanha said that she “doesn’t expect anything” from the February summit at the Vatican on sexual abuse, and instead called for the further inclusion of women at the event and in decision making processes.
Others, such as Peruvian Rocio Figueroa Alvear, a theologian and clerical sexual abuse survivor under the lay Sodalitium Movement, had a more optimistic outlook. While admitting that Pope Francis “was not victim-centered initially” and “didn’t see the magnitude of the problem,” she told attendees at the conference that in her opinion “he has been changing and I think that’s real, it’s not manufactured.”
In an Oct. 26 interview with Crux during the summit of bishops on young people, Gracias asked why journalists “make such a big fuss about sexual abuse, and making it like the number one issue?” a question that may seem out of touch with many who believe the sex scandals are the paramount issue in terms of the Church’s global credibility.
According to Saldanha the Church has “happily kept [sexual abuse] covered up,” pointing to clericalism as the main talking point. “It just takes a spark” to bring about change, she added, “and I think that spark is already lit.”