Former Indian Priests, Sisters Call on Church for Severance

KOCHI, India (CNS) — An expelled religious sister’s fight for compensation has led to calls from former priests and sisters in India for the introduction of severance similar to that offered to employees of private firms.

They say people who leave religious life — either of their own free will or who are expelled — have a right to some form of support as they adjust to their new situation after serving years in ministry and they are calling top clerics to introduce a severance system, reported the Asian Catholic news portal

Under canon law, the church is not obliged to provide severance.

The move comes after a Kerala sister belonging to the Syro-Malabar Church was expelled from the Italy-based Sisters of St. Agatha in February after making repeated claims that a priest sexually assaulted her while doing mission work in Madhya Pradesh state in 2011.

The former sister, known only as Anitha, had demanded compensation since her expulsion and threatened legal action.

In late March, church officials offered her $20,000 in what has been seen as an unprecedented settlement.

They said the money was not offered as compensation but out of Christian charity.

“Please understand. This is not compensation. It is the money her congregation offered in real Christian charity to help her settle in life,” said Father Paul Thelakkat, spokesman for the Syro-Malabar Church.

The payout has added extra impetus to calls by former priests and sisters for severance. Their campaign has been gaining media coverage since about 700 former priests and sisters gathered in Kochi on 28 February to call on the church to change its practice.

Hundreds of priests and sisters leave ministry every year for a variety of reasons, but are left with “no money, no family backing, no social security system or job,” Reji Njallani, one of the gathering’s organizers, said in an interview on 31 March.

Most who leave ministry have spent all their lives within the church, trained only in church disciplines and have “no skills or education to work in the wider world,” said Njallani, who heads the Kerala Church Reformation Movement.

“It is their right to receive severance. … Their right to live a dignified life should not be questioned because they left a congregation for whatever reason,” he said.

Canon law states that people who leave or are dismissed “cannot claim anything.” Instead it asks an institution to “show equity and evangelical charity toward the member who is separated from it.”

Njallani called for change in attitude within church institutions. “It is one of arrogance and superiority. It says: You have no right, what you get is our charity. The church needs to move from charity to recognizing basic human rights,” he said.

Supporters of the severance call suggested that such a change would have a global impact.

“It is a clear human rights violation,” Mani Parampatt, 70, a former priest in the Little Flower Congregation, said of current church practice.

“Church officials always speak of kindness and charity, but refuse to see things in the way of human rights,” said Parampatt, who was a priest for 34 years and left the priesthood when he was 60.

If changes do not occur, people will be forced to take their cases to court and that will “cost the church much more than they imagine,” he said.

Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal of Trivandrum, major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, has defended the current arrangement.

Each case is unique and should be settled in a “humane and just manner by the immediate superiors,” he told

Father Joseph Chinnayyan, deputy secretary-general of the bishops’ conference, also said canon law provisions are adequate in urging church authorities to take a “humane and benevolent” approach to those leaving religious life.

“The priesthood and religious life are not professions. … They are a free and total commitment to the call of God to serve. Therefore, its systems should not be compared with trade union laws and other existing severance provisions,” he said.

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