Recently, when a 17-year-old Santal girl from an indigenous tribe in Rajshahi, Bangladesh went to cut grass for her family’s cattle in the pasture, she had no idea that danger was lurking around the corner. The danger was not that she was going to get attacked by a wild animal, but from a human predator disguised as a priest in full gear — Collar and Cassock and all. We have heard similar stories before. Those were stories of Catholic priests molesting the choirboys in churches across the United States. This story is slightly different as it is a story which involves an underage girl who may or may not have been a parishioner in the same church. She was lured into the residence of the parish priest Father Pradeep Gregory of the Catholic Church of St. John Mary Vianney’s Church in Mundumala, covered by Rajshahi Diocese. The girl was there for three days, and it was alleged that Father Gregory had raped her until the locals and her family tried to rescue her. Father Pradeep Gregory was arrested on the evening of Sept. 29, a police official confirmed.
As a general policy, a rape victim’s name and picture does not flash on the front pages of newspapers. If the victim is a minor, then utmost consideration is given to conceal her identity. Unfortunately, the girl cannot go into hiding all her life. Sooner or later, everyone in her community will come to know her identity and what had happened to her. She perhaps will become a subject of ridicule and be ostracized (like most rape victims) in a society for the crime that took place. It does not matter if the girl lives in mainstream society or she is a member of an ethnic minority community.
Santal women play a dominant role in earning a livelihood and they work very hard at it. Though the victim is a teenage girl, she was hard at work for her family. She was out cutting grass to feed the cattle. But luck had betrayed her in the worst possible way on the day Father Pradeep persuaded her to come along with him into his residence. What did he promise her that she was swayed or was she taken forcefully?
I am trying hard to imagine the dark complexioned girl with curly black hair who became Father Pradeep’s second victim. There are allegations against him of raping another minor while he was working in another parish. Reportedly, this is not the first time that allegations of sexual assault have surfaced against Father Gregory, who was ordained a priest in 2009.
“During his time as the assistant parish priest of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Benedwar of Naogaon district in 2010, he [Father Pradeep] was accused of sexually assaulting a minor indigenous girl in a church-run hostel.”
“The priest raped my sixth-grader niece several times. Other girls knew about the offense, but they remained tightlipped fearing a backlash from him. The church authority settled the matter secretly and it was covered up. If justice had been done that time, the latest rape wouldn’t have happened,” Elias Murmu, a Santal Catholic from Benedwar Parish, told UCA News.
“Due to such cover-ups and injustices in the Catholic Church, people are losing their trust and devotion to priests and they are moving away from the Church.”
Bishop Rozario of the Rajshahi archdiocese denied there had been a cover-up in the 2010 case.
When it became known, the church tried to cover it up instead of punishing Father Gregory. At the time this is what the church said, “He made some technical faults in Benedwar Parish regarding a minor girl. We had a probe and the priest was suspended and sanitized for a long time.”
He was sanitized? Apparently not enough to hold his sexual urges in check which is required of him as a priest as he chose to serve the Catholic Church.
In Bangladesh’s ethnically rich culture, the Santals play a pivotal role as they were the first known growers of many basic staple food such as “potatoes, pear, sugarcane, garlic and tomatoes.” But Bangladesh has not been very protective of its 35 known ethnic groups. In many ways the government has failed in ensuring their rights to land, education and employment. As a marginalized group, their safety, security and religious rights hang in the balance. They are not as segregated as before, but a majority depends on the well-off people to hire them as day laborers or sharecroppers. A lot of the times some rely on the Christian missionaries when they face hard times and the local churches also step in when they face discrimination. The church sponsored schools give the Santal children basic free education, and eventually try to convert them into Catholicism. Some happily convert to avoid practicing animistic nature worshipping such as the god of the sun and god of the mountains.
“In the terribly poverty-stricken life of Santals, Christian missionary work of social welfare and, along with that, preaching of the message of spiritual peace accelerated their conversion to Christianity.”
Be that as it may, it does not give any right to the church authorities to rape anyone. “For about 900 years, the Catholic Church has required that its priests stay celibate.” The priests take a vow of celibacy and if one cannot deal with the discipline of giving his life completely to Christ, and cannot concentrate on his pastoral duties when a woman is involved, he can ask the Archbishop that he be suspended from priesthood. After one is ordained, breaking one’s oath in secrecy by sexually abusing anyone is not only unacceptable, but it also goes against the belief of those people who take God’s work seriously.
From the United States to Bangladesh, sexual abuses by priests are being reported each month. It has been proven to be longstanding, and usually is covered up by the church authorities. According to a 2018 report in the New York Times, “Bishops and other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania covered up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests over a period of 70 years, persuading victims not to report the abuse and law enforcement not to investigate it.” Since 2000, the sexual abuse stories have plagued the Catholic Church to a point of no return. The grand jury report in the state of Pennsylvania had identified at least 1,000 victims who were minor at the time. The report covered the horrible instances of abuse in the state’s six different dioceses out of eight. It is believed most probably there are thousands more unreported cases where the churches were involved in covering up the abuse. Men of God (including Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington DC) who were and are responsible for protecting the young priests, seminarians, altar and choirboys have been molesting them all over the United States.
It was reported that with the alleged raping of the indigenous girl in Rajshahi, the church had tried to negotiate a deal with the girl’s family by keeping the girl with the nuns. They also tried to convince the family not to press charges and assured them if they comply then the church will bear all expenses of the girl until she turns 18. Previously, the diocese minimized the alleged abuse by using words like “sanitized,” “inappropriate conduct,” and let the priest back in the church. If he was dealt with properly where the church management did not try to conceal what had happened, then the Santal girl and its community would have been a lot safer in living their lives. The girl was terrified what might happen to her when she is released to her family’s custody. Furthermore, the recent rape incident of the girl has put all priests under suspicion. People are asking a valid question, “Can you really trust a priest?” Is a man in a cloak any better than a van man cruising through for underage girls in suburban America?
Will the Santal girl get justice? What waits for 41-year-old Father Pradeep? With 3% conviction rate in rape cases in Bangladesh, only time will tell. Amid growing protests and severe anger, Bangladesh government on October 13 approved the use of the death penalty in rape cases. “Led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the cabinet met online and approved changes to a law that will enable courts to sentence any convicted rapist to execution.” The next day President Abdul Hamid signed the ordinance on capital punishment in rape cases. Now the “Women and Children Repression Prevention (Amendment) Bill” has an amended law. Bangladesh’s existing laws mandate a life in prison in case of a rape conviction. A judge overseeing a rape case now has the authority to choose a life term or death by hanging while giving sentencing. It seems the wheel of justice is proceeding in record time. An English daily in Bangladesh reported that five men got the death penalty today (October 15) for the 2012 rape of a girl in Tangail, an upazila in greater Mymenshingh district in Bangladesh. The victim was studying at a madrassah, a school for Islamic religious learning. She apparently had rejected a marriage proposal from the prime suspect Sagor Chandra Sheel. She was abducted, brutally raped and was left near a river.
In the instance of the rape of the underage girl in Rajshahi, one thing is crystal clear. The multiple rape incidents that had happened in the course of three days as a captive of Father Gregory forever have changed her life. What kind of future will she have now? As a rape victim, will a man from her community step forward to marry her? Will she be free to live a life that she had dreamt for her or she would be taunted and teased everywhere she goes? Will she be spared the painful scrutiny and discrimination? Is she hopeful from the ongoing protests and the response to them? Will the determined protesters (young and old) all across Bangladesh continue pushing for change that is needed to change the mindset and stigma surrounding the rape victims? Will men and priests supposedly doing God’s work stop raping women?
Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA