It is not easy to be a former priest or nun in Kerala
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep’” —Luke 15:4
“The number of lost sheep has been on the rise,” says George Joseph, president of the Kerala Catholic Reform Movement (KCRM), an organisation fighting for reform within the religion. “The shepherds are supposed to protect the sheep from wolves and lions; unfortunately, they themselves become wolves. Who goes in search of the lost sheep? No one. They are abandoned and ostracised.”
Joseph is speaking about the hundreds of former priests and nuns who have left the order, often unable to withstand exploitation, discrimination and hypocrisy of those who control the Church in India. On 28 February this year, the KCRM is scheduled to hold a national conference of ex-priests and ex-nuns in Kochi, a first of its kind in the country.
On why they leave the order, a common thread runs through the experience of nuns and priests. They are exploited, sexually harassed and stifled by lack of sexual freedom, and must endure unequal treatment and poor living standards in the name of spiritual discipline. “Ostracised by our family and society, deprived of livelihoods, many of us end up on the margins. The ex-priests have better options, but nuns have nothing,” says Ann Maria, a former nun who lives in Kannur.
In 1978, Maria was 15 years old when she decided to become a nun. Born to an economically backward peasant family at Palai in Kottayam district, she saw in it the prospect of a better life. “We were a big family of nine children. I have five brothers and three sisters. Poverty and the inability to give dowry prompted my elder sister to take the ‘divine call’. I too followed her path. In the 60s and 70s, opting for priesthood and nunhood was the only means for people like us to get higher education. Many Catholic men and women joined seminaries and convents only to meet their educational goals.”
Compared to many others, Maria did have a better life because she joined a European convent. “We had better food and were not ill treated as it happens in many Indian convents,” she says. Maria completed her pre-degree in Humanities and was sent to Patna for higher studies.
“Like everyone else, I too had sexual desires in my early teens, but I thought it was a sin. I was told by seniors and priests to read the Bible and to think of God whenever I had such feelings. When I reached Patna, I found that the taboo with regard to such things was less and there was no big deal in having relationships. I started reading Mills & Boon. I was provided with such books by a young priest who was attracted to me. I had heard stories of nuns having sex with priests. A senior priest, who was also my professor, made sexual advances on me. One day, I was called to his room. He gave me liquor and forced me to have sexual intercourse with him. I will not call it ‘rape’ because I too thought, ‘Why I should stay away from sex if all these priests and nuns can do it?’ I did not object, and we continued that relationship for one year. I am not sure whether I can call it love; it was a manifestation of natural desires. On the other side, I did have a love affair with a Brother (one training to be priest) with whom I had spent time on work, [but] the circumstances to continue this relationship were not favourable.”
It took 20 years for Maria to realise that nunhood was not for her. “I wanted to wind up the double game. I did not want to continue with pretensions of celibacy. I was fed up with the hypocrisy of the Church leaders. I wanted to be honest to myself. Thus I decided to leave and informed the Mother Superior of my decision. She sent me for counselling. Soon they realised there was no point in forcing me to stay, and let me go. I wrote to my parents that I was coming back home, but they were not able to accept it. The wrote me that they would consider me ‘dead’.”
With the help of a friend, Maria got a job in Thrissur and took admission in a hostel. After a couple of years, she took a job in Oman. “As soon as I got a job abroad, there was an attitude change in my family and they accepted me,” she recounts. “They were happier with my money. I spent five years in Oman, managed to buy a house of my own and spent lot of money on my family. At the age of 50, I started living together with a friend of mine who was an associate of Osho. This again created a storm in the family and I was thrown out once more. I was not given even one cent of land from the family property.”
Maria’s brothers have never asked her why she gave up being a nun. To them, she had violated the canon law and deserved to be ostracised. Maria now works at a private educational centre at Kannur and lives with her partner. She sees no point in getting married: “We are living together; I have never felt that marriage is a necessity. The institution of marriage is as dishonest as the institution of religion.”
For Molly George, who is in her late forties, leaving the nunnery was not as smooth as it was for Maria. She actually ran away in fear of being raped and killed. George is also from Palai, Kottayam, and also joined the order as a way out of poverty. She joined the convent at the age of 17, and, after two years of training, was sent to the Andamans for social service. “Initially, I enjoyed the life [there]. I had a lot of things to do in service of the poor. Gradually, I realised that all was not well around me. I was sexually harassed by a Parish priest. When I wouldn’t give in to his advances, he started intimidating and spreading rumours about me. I complained to the Mother Superior, but was disappointed by her response. I was assigned work at a village quite far from the convent and had to walk 5-6 km every day. The road through the forest was often deserted and this man used to follow me. I was thoroughly scared. I was even afraid that he would kill me. I wrote to my sisters that I do not want to be another Abhaya [a nun who was famously murdered]. I decided to come back to Kerala. My elder sister sent a telegram that my mother was seriously unwell and so they allowed me to go. I never went back.”
Back home, George was supported by her three sisters, but her three brothers gave her a hostile welcome. They got her married off. In her case, there was no property to share, a common reason for brothers to treat their sisters exiting nunneries as pariahs. George’s husband was a former priest, but his family didn’t accept them. George, her husband and two children now live in Kottayam, and she does menial jobs to support the family.
The life of ex-priests is not as bad as that of nuns. They have better opportunities in terms of livelihood, mobility and acceptance by the family. Mani Parambarath, a one-time priest, renounced not only the Church but also religion and God. “God is a creation of man, not the reverse,” says Parambarath, who has also been the state secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties in Kerala. It had not been poverty that prompted him to join the seminary. “Mine was an upper middle-class family,” he says, “In those days, it was prestigious for a Catholic family to have a nun or priest.”
Parambarath, who has been living in Attappady, a vast tribal belt in Kerala, for the past three decades, is originally from Ettumanur, Kottayam. He is 71 now and joined the seminary at the age of 15. Ordained after nine years of training, he was asked to head to north India for missionary work, but was unwilling to go because he wanted to do social work in Kerala. He was given charge of an orphanage under the congregation. “I enjoyed the job and worked six years there,” he says. But his disgruntlement began in this period. “They did not want me to spend the entire amount received in donations on the development of the orphanage. I refused to do that and was removed from office.” He was next appointed principal of an Industrial Training centre under the Church, but all he saw here was the misappropriation of funds.
Parambarath wanted to promote tribal education and sought a transfer to Attappadi. He travelled across the Western Ghats to understand the community life of Tribals and formed an organisation, the Attappady Human Rights Forum, to fight labour exploitation and violence against women. “Mine was a gradual change from the idea of spirituality, service and charity to rights, justice and freedom,” he says, “Though my faith in Church and God was decreasing, I continued offering Sunday Mass.”
Parambarath led agitations like a strike of bus passengers and one against the production and distribution of liquor. “I had been a member of the PUCL since 1997. I knew that the Church was unhappy about a PUCL activist offering Sunday Mass, but they did not interfere in my activities. I think they dared not.” In 2005, he left the seminary, leaving religion behind, and joined the state’s oldest atheist organisation, the Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham. “It was a peaceful exit,” he says, “They did not force me to stay back. Spirituality is nothing but an industry. You need neither religion nor God to serve society.” He now lives with his wife Salomi, enjoying farming and the company of Adivasis. Celibacy, to him, is a form of masochism.
There are also those like the 48-year- old Shibu KP, who left the Church but has not abandoned his faith and still wants to retain some link. He joined the seminary at the age of 15. “The whole business of a divine call at such a tender age, and of being imprisoned in seminaries and nunneries, is just a human trade. It is a means of cheap labour for the Church,” says Shibu, who now works in the insurance sector and is married with a three- year-old daughter. Shibu left when he was asked to take up a job that did not meet his qualifications. “I did a BEd and an MEd.They offered me a job at a primary school when they have higher secondary schools under the Church. They were not very happy when I decided to do an MEd against their will. I got a job at a higher secondary school in Haryana, but they did not allow me to go. After that, I got job at an Indian school in Doha. I did not want to commit the same mistake again by listening to them. I took my luggage and went home. As expected, my father and brothers were quite unhappy to see me. I left all my things at home and took a flight to Doha the next day.” Shibu returned to Kerala after two years, but by then the family property had been divided among his brothers. “We had one acre of land and my share was 25 cents. My father gave me only five cents,” he says, “I protested. They opposed me and it ended in physical violence. With police intervention and mediation by local people, my father gave me 13 cents of land.”
It was a matrimonial advertisement that led Shibu to meet the woman he married. “When I went to meet her, I told them that my family would not cooperate since I was an ex-priest,” he says, “We got married under the Special Marriage Act [of 1954]. On the day of the marriage, my parents came to the registrar’s office. They might have been scared of being blamed by society. After the registration, we all went to the local church and I tied the knot with no presence of priests. Jesus Christ was the only witness.”
Shibu then had to fight to get a formal declaration of disassociation from the seminary. The Church delayed it, and Shibu wrote a letter to the Pope and received a positive response. It has been five years, and he is still shunned by many in his family. Other priests avoid visiting his house. Religious processions do not enter his gate, even though they often go to the houses of Hindus and Muslims nearby.
The Kerala Catholic Reform Movement expects its upcoming conference to be a cardinal step toward improving the lives of ex-priests and nuns. “We will lobby the Government. We will demand statutes to ensure that priests and nuns get their share of family property. In the current practice, the property is grabbed either by siblings or the Church,” says Joseph.
He also says 40 per cent of the teaching staff of Kerala’s state-aided schools and colleges are priests and nuns. Their salaries, paid by the government, goes to the Church. According to Joseph, those who leave the ministry not given any part of that money. “The Church should make a public fund out of their salaries and they should be given at least a portion of it. The stigma of being an ex-nun [or] priest should be broken. Celibacy, monasticism and spirituality should not be imposed,” he says.
There has in recent times been a decline in the number of girls from Catholic families volunteering to become nuns. Small families seem to now prefer their daughters to get married and employed, but the KCRM does not see this as a crisis. “It only means that the community is on the path of progress,” says Reji Njallani, KCRM’s organising secretary.
Father Dr Paul Thelakkat, spokesperson of the Syro Malabar Church, welcomes the KCRM’s conference and says many ex- priests and ex-nuns are still faithful to the Church and their problems need discussion. As for those who are employed, he says, the money entitled is duly paid. But he refuses to respond to allegations of sexual harassment levelled by some nuns.