A Catholic priest arrested and jailed 16 months ago on charges of a raping a minor in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh was released as the prosecution failed to establish the crime.
Father Joseph Dhanaswami from Ambikapur Diocese was arrested on Sept. 11, 2015 on charges of sexually abusing a fourth-grade girl student at the church-run Jyoti Mission High School where he was the principal. He was released on Jan. 9.
"We are relieved. It was a totally fabricated case aimed at tarnishing the image of the church," Bishop Patras Minj of Ambikapur told ucanews.com.
The last 16 months were times of "stress and pain for us. We were sure that our priest had not done anything wrong. He is victim of fabrication by people opposed to the church," said Bishop Minj.
The legal process was a long one, with influential factions working toward the priest’s conviction. The state's top court denied bail to the priest on Oct. 26 after prosecutors told the court that a chemical analysis found "semen and human spermatozoa" in the girl's undergarments.
The court was also told on Nov. 9 that a medical examination of the girl showed injuries to her wrists and genitals and that the medical officer was adamant the injuries were "suggestive of sexual intercourse."
However, during the trial witnesses refuted the prosecutor’s case and the evidence soon fell apart. "It was the result of hard work from a team of lawyers from the diocese, prayers of the people," the bishop said.
Father Dhanaswami told ucanews.com that along with him, the school hostel warden Samaritan Sister Christ Maria, and school hostel maid Philomina Kerketta, were also arrested. A court granted bail to the nun on Sept. 23 but rejected bail for the priest and the maid.
"I knew that one day I would be freed, but did not know when. I had full faith in my bishop, diocese and the judiciary," the 45-year-old priest told ucanews.com after his release.
He said the girl was suffering from a skin disease that infected her genitals but her mother and local groups blamed church workers for harming the child.
He said being in the jail was "a very hard experience and quite painful." However, the priest said that it brought him "closer to God and deepened his faith in Him."
"It also gave me a different kind of experience of how people live in jail," he said.
Bishop Minj accused the state’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu hard-liners of falsely implicating the priest and putting pressure on state police and authorities. He said that because of pressure the judgment was postponed four times.
The bishop had even sought the intervention of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee to look into the case.
Christians have been at the receiving end of the political activities of the BJP and other Hindu groups that want to make India a Hindu theocratic nation. Christian leaders have reported several attacks against their people, especially among tribal and poorer citizens.
"The attempts are to keep people away from the church," Bishop Minj said.
Christians number less than 1 percent of the population in the Hindu-dominated state, where the church is engaged primarily in education and health care among the poor.
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