PJ Kurien, Pope Francis
New Delhi, March 18: The Union government today chose P.J. Kurien, the deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, to lead a delegation to the Vatican to attend the installation Mass of the new Pope tomorrow.
The choice of Kurien, who has been accused of rape by the victim of the Suryanelli sex slave case although no court has convicted him, raised eyebrows in political circles, not the least because one of the biggest tests awaiting the new Pope is tackling a series of sex scandals buffeting the Church.Tomorrow’s installation Mass coincides with the feast of St Joseph, patron saint of the universal Church.
In Kerala today, the victim and her mother called on chief minister Oommen Chandy in the capital, with the request that advocate Suresh Babu Thomas be appointed public prosecutor in the case.
Later, the mother told reporters that the family was “saddened and angered” by the Centre’s move to send Kurien to the Vatican to attend the new Pope’s swearing-in. “They should not have sent him. We are helpless in the matter. If there was any opportunity to alert the Pope about Kurien, we would have utilised that,” she said.
Kurien could not be reached for comments.
Government sources in Delhi said minister of food and civil supplies K.V. Thomas was the original choice to lead the delegation but he opted out as the food security bill was supposed to be taken up at a cabinet meeting this evening and later to be presented in Parliament before the recess on March 22. His inability to leave the country at this stage forced the government to pick Kurien.
Thomas, however, was disappointed as the bill could not be taken up at the cabinet meeting today as senior ministers P. Chidambaram, A.K. Antony and Ghulam Nabi Azad were not present. The ministers had to be rushed to Chennai to placate DMK chief M. Karunanidhi who threatened to walk out of the ruling combine over the Sri Lanka issue.
Kurien, however, had left for the Vatican by then. The Indian delegation led by Kurien included his wife Susan, and MPs Anto Antony from the Congress and Jose K. Mani from the Kerala Congress (Mani). The choices before the government were limited as it preferred to send Catholics.
Although his wife was accompanying Kurien, it was an official delegation of the government of India.
A media statement from the Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson said: “Prof. P.J. Kurien, will be leading the official four-member Indian Delegation to attend the Inaugural Pontifical Mass of the new Pope, His Holiness Pope Francis 1, on Tuesday, 19th March ’13, at 9.30am at the St Peter’s Basilica, in Vatican city.”
A six-time Lok Sabha MP from Kerala and three-time Rajya Sabha member, senior Congress leader Kurien was first accused of rape by the victim of the sex slave case in March 1996.
The girl, then a Class IX student, was allegedly gang-raped over 40 days between January 16 and February 26, 1996.
She wrote to the then chief minister A.K. Antony, seeking action in the case. Investigations by the police, however, failed to find any evidence linking Kurien to the case. The police concluded that he was present elsewhere at the time the girl alleged she was raped by the Congressman.
The probe report also cited alibis in Kurien’s defence. The girl subsequently approached a magistrate’s court which summoned him to face trial. Kurien moved the higher judiciary seeking discharge from the case. He was finally discharged by Kerala High Court in April 2007 and the order was ratified by the Supreme Court in November the same year.
Although the trial court convicted and sentenced 35 accused in the case, Kerala High Court set free 34 of them in 2005.
The case, lying dormant for a long time, hit the headlines again in February this year after the Supreme Court termed the high court order “shocking” and sent it back for a fresh look.
The girl subsequently wrote to her lawyer in New Delhi seeking options to initiate legal action against Kurien. But the local police said there was no new evidence in the case.
The state government led by Congress chief minister Oommen Chandy too has adopted a similar view and said that the charges raised by the girl were old and that Kurien had been cleared by the courts.