Rapist priest’s ‘ploy’ to marry victim, avoid jail spotlights misery faced by India’s sexual assault survivors
- Robin Mathew, a former Catholic priest in Kerala, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for raping and impregnating a 16-year-old girl in 2016
- Women’s rights activists say the case shows the ‘hell’ unmarried rape survivors face in a society that stigmatises them more than their attackers
Robin Mathew was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in 2019 for the rape of a girl three years earlier while he was still the priest of St Sebastian’s Church in Kottiyoor, Kerala state. His victim, who was studying at a church school at the time, gave birth to a daughter in 2017.
The 52-year-old Mathew was told on Monday by India’s Supreme Court that it would not entertain his petition – or that of his now 21-year-old victim – for him to be granted bail so the pair could marry. An earlier appeal to Kerala’s High Court for a reprieve had already been rejected.
Rebecca John, a Supreme Court lawyer, said the case showed how “yet again, an offer to marry is a ploy for accused rapists to evade punishment and deny agency to the woman”.
It is not unheard of for accused rapists in India to seek to marry their victims. In March, the country’s then-chief justice Sharad Arvind Bobde faced calls to resign after asking during a bail hearing whether a man accused of rape would marry the complainant.
Women’s rights activist Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi said the idea of a woman having to marry her attacker was repulsive, but also reflected an unfortunate reality of Indian society: that a life of misery often awaits unmarried mothers who have survived sexual assault.
“In this case the girl is not well off and won’t have any money,” she said of Mathew’s victim. “She will be ostracised. The child will suffer from the stigma of having no father. Everyone will abandon her and her life will be hell.”
Kumari said that as the rapist was a priest at the time of the attack, the Supreme Court should have ordered the Catholic Church “to take responsibility for the mother and child and help them financially”.
“That way, her social status would also improve. It’s not enough to reject marriage as a solution unless you also offer an alternative,” she said.
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Last month, a 24-year-old man in Uttarakhand state who married a woman he had raped to protect both of their families’ “honour” confessed to pushing her off a cliff to her death.
Rajesh Roy was arrested in August last year for the rape of the unnamed woman, but was released on conditional bail in October after she accepted his offer of marriage.
Nine months later, her body was found at the base of a cliff in the mountain town of Nainital. “We thought if the two married, the honour of both families would be safeguarded,” Roy’s brother told local media afterwards.