Police, Administration Clash Over Divine Retreat Centre Issue

Thiruvananthapuram, India (Christian Today) - A row has flared up in Kerala between the state police and the management of the popular catholic retreat centre, the Divine Retreat Centre, with the police filing criminal charges against 10 top officials including its director Father George Panakkal, his close associates and a nun.

|PIC1|The police have claimed that a total of 974 mysterious deaths, most of them young, took place at the Divine Retreat Centre, Muringoor, Kerala, between 1991 and 2006 and on many occasions the bodies were reportedly disposed of without informing the police, allegedly by forging documents to make them look like natural deaths.

Charges framed against the centre comes after six months of investigations at the direction of the Kerala High Court, include forceful confinement, causing hurt by poison, cheating and destroying evidences.

The Kerala High Court, acting suo motu, had ordered a probe into its affairs, following complaints and allegations ranging from mysterious disappearances and murders to violation of foreign exchange rules.

The retreat centre, which was set up in the late 80's, attracts thousands of people every week from all religions across the country.

The centre, which conducts week-long in-house prayer sessions, has appointed several people as preachers. It has also opened branches throughout India.

The centre, run by the Vincentian Congregation, runs homes for the destitute, drug addicts, AIDS patients and the mentally handicapped, and also hosts spiritual retreats.

The Muringoor centre falls under the Ernakulam Archdiocese of the Syro Malabar Church.

According to sources close to the development, an investigating team led by Inspector General of Police Vincent M. Paul has accused the centre of running a mental hospital without a licence and administering drugs without prescriptions from qualified medical professionals.

The team allegedly found several persons confined in cells for "healing" and those showing violent signs were often injected with drugs by "untrained" hands.

Besides the first information report filed at Koratty police station, the team has also filed a report before the first class judicial magistrate. The team has also recommended a probe into the foreign funding of the healing centre.

When the police team raided the Divine Centre last year, both the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) and opposition Congress party condemned it in strongest terms but the High Court gave a green signal to the probe team.

The charges under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections against the centre's director, administrator Father Mathew Thadathil, a nun and seven others include criminal conspiracy, wrongful confinement, voluntarily causing harm with dangerous weapons, poisoning and tampering with evidence. If found guilty, they may face up to 10 years of hard labour.

Meanwhile, the centre has alleged a police vendetta after it challenged the High Court-ordered investigation and filed a review petition in the Supreme Court.

"Our move irritated the investigation team," which resulted in the charges, Fr. Panakkal said. "We will deal with it legally," the priest added in his statement. He asked supporters to pray for the centre.

Fr. Panakkal had also approached the Supreme Court of India seeking a stay on the police probe into its activities.

"Not a single family member of the 974 people who died here has raised any doubt," he said.

However, the apex court, rejecting the petition, said the police could continue their probe and should complete it as the High Court has directed.

"It's not fair of the court to stop the ongoing investigation. But if the investigation team wants to arrest any of the officials of the centre, the police officials should get prior permission from the Supreme Court," the Supreme Court judges said.

The judges also clarified that the investigation team has the authority to interrogate any centre official for the investigation.

Thomas Devaprasad, a journalist-turned-charismatic leader, said he was "anguished" by the "most unfortunate" turn of events. The centre is caught in "controversy and conspiracy," he added. Without elaborating, he said "time will reveal the conspiracy and expose the guilty."

Syro-Malabar Church spokesman Father Paul Thelakat said the Church has "faith in the judicial system and will wait for the law to take its course."

"The Church is sad as one of our prime institutions is under attack. It was a centre of hope for thousands of poor people who were shunted aside by society," Fr. Thalakat added.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan said his government was not planning to order any special probe but would follow the court directives. He also rejected the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) demand for immediate closure of the centre.

In a statement posted on the retreat's website, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, said it was a "centre of healing and relief for the mentally sick and those abandoned by their own dear ones."

"Thousands of patients come here to pray for their healing. A large number of people get healings because of their faith," he said.

"Although there were court cases, the doors (of the centre) were left open for all. Anyone could at any time step in. At this Retreat Centre, to my knowledge, nothing is done secretly or under cover of concealment. That is precisely why when the Honourable Court ordered an inquiry, the Director of Divine Retreat Centre boldly declared that they would fully co-operate with the inquiry," the prelate added.

"Instead of observing and getting to know the ground realities, it is deplorable that a police investigation trespassing all the limits of decency and respectability was carried out. The media projection of the recent police investigation at the Divine Retreat Centre is itself despicable," the cardinal said.