Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference, the top Catholic Church body in the state, has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi complaining about the “shocking” statement issued by National Commission of Women on “confessions”.

The NCW has called for the abolishing of the religious tradition in which Christian faithful reveal their “sins” to a priest in private inside a church.

NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma said on Friday that such a system can lead to blackmailing of women and called for a central agency to do a proper investigation into the increasing incidents of rape and sexual assaults in churches of Kerala.

“The priests pressure women into telling their secrets and we have one such case in front of us, there must be many more such cases and what we have right now is just a tip of the iceberg,” she said.

In response to Sharma’s comment, the Soosai Pakiam, the Archbishop of Latin Archdiocese of Trivandrum, said, “NCW chairperson shouldn’t dictate that you abolish this [confession].”

In its letter to the PM, Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Conference wrote, “We believe that the motive of the Commission is to spread tension and religious unrest among the minorities and to create division and polarization among people for political gains.”

“We strongly protest this unbecoming move from the part of a person in a responsible position of the Government,” the letter said.

According to NDTV, Pakiam also said that even though the PM spoke of protecting the rights of minorities statements such as the one issued by Sharma force the Church “to suspect a hidden agenda”.

Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church Cardinal Baselios Cleemis added that the NCW’s recommendation is “a direct encroachment into the freedom of a believer.”

According to The Indian Express, Cleemis said that confession can be “understood only in terms of faith” and that it is “an expression of a believer to God’s unconditional love and forgiveness”.

BJP leader opposes NCW

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and chairman of the vice-Chairman of National Commission for Minorities (NCM) took umbrage to the NCW’s proposal. He reportedly said that the NCW’s move proves that feminist ideology has crossed all limits while warning of “stiff opposition” from NCW to the implementation of such a recommendation.

Church and sexual abuse

NCW’s recommendation comes in the backdrop of the alleged rape of a married woman by four priests of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. The woman’s husband wrote to the church accusing the priests of blackmailing and abusing his wife.

The NCW has constituted an inquiry committee to look into alleged sexual assaults against women in churches, and has sent its findings to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi and the DGP of Kerala and Punjab.

In June, a nun had registered a complaint with the Kottayam district police chief accusing Bishop Franco Mulakkal of raping her between 2014 and 2016.

What is confession?

Confession is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and is also a distinctive feature in Abrahamic religions and Buddhism. But the system of confessing one’s “sins” to a priest in private exists only in Catholic Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Members of the Church are required to confess acts that are against the law of the God to the priest or to the person they have wronged in order to receive the mercy of God. Those who confess their “sins” are also required to right their wrong through act dubbed as penance.