It’s never pleasant when organized religion and crime intercept. We’ve heard a lot about Roman Catholic priests molesting little boys but there have been sinister murders in the Church in the 20th Century that haven’t garnered as much attention. This one is especially disturbing since both killer and victim weren’t priests but nuns working in a hostel for the homeless. Worse, due to a sloppy post-mortem investigation and destruction of evidence by investigating parties, the killer nearly got away with it….
March 27 1002 – St. Pius X Convent, Kottayam, India. Sister Abhaya was a youthful 19-year-old Roman Catholic nun, very devoted to her religion. She was a member of the St. Joseph’s Congregation for Women. At 4:00 a.m. Abhaya awoke to study for an exam. She went to the kitchen of the hostel to get herself a glass of water. As she stood at the refrigerator, an axe cracked into her skull, not once, not twice, but three times. The killer, another nun named Sister Sephy, enlisted the help of two priests, Father Thomas Kottur, and Father Jose Puthurukkayil to remove Abhaya’s body from the kitchen and drop it down a well on the hostel property. None of the three bothered to remove the water bottle Abhaya had dropped on the kitchen floor, one of her slippers that was found under the refrigerator, ot its pair, that lay beside the convent well. I suppose they were a little too distracted to clean up the crime scene. And so much water nearby, too.
Abhaya was reported missing. After a brief search, police figured out where her body was and by 10:00 a.m, the fire department was called in to retrieve it from the well. Can you imagine this poor young woman’s limp, motionless body, dripping water and thoroughly soaked, as it was lifted out of the well? She certainly didn’t deserve that unhappy ending. Oh, right, about that. I forgot to mention that Sephy had decided to dispose of Abhaya after the young nun caught her and her two accomplices in “a compromising position.” Tsk, tsk. Sephy was an energetic soul, indeed. And an evil one. She worried that Abhaya would report her misdeeds so she reasoned killing her was the only way around the problem. As weird as that sounds, the nun almost got away with it. The Church has really got to re-think its celibacy vow.
It’s not entirely difficult to understand why Kottayam West Police were reluctant to regard Abhaya’s death as anything other than suicide. Their only immediate suspects were two men and one woman of the cloth. Unthinkable. You don’t go around throwing out allegations about holy people without rock solid evidence. You’d think the axe blows would do it. Oh, that. Somehow even the coroner, Dr Radhakrishnan , concluded that Abhaya’s death was a suicide. Although the good doctor found abrasions on the nun’s right shoulder and hip, and two small lacerations above the right ear, he stated in his medical report that Abhaya had drowned. Well (pun), he was right about that at least. Abhaya hadn’t been dead when the three dropped her into the well.
Sixty-seven nuns at the convent were unconvinced that happy, peaceful Abhaya had killed herself. They pleaded with the Chief Minister of the Kerala State Government to investigate the death as a homicide. The outcome was that the investigation was taken over by the Kerala Police. Ultimately, this didn’t make much difference. The inquiries into poor Abhaya’s death were “lengthy, convoluted and unsatisfactory, plagued by internal conflict, bitter rivalries and allegations of corruption and bias, compounded by pressure from many quarters to bring the case to conclusion.” In other words, politics interfered with the integrity of the investigation. Religion is never an easy issue, it ? Rumours were rampant that the Crime Branch destroyed material evidence that pointed to homicide.
In April 1995, forensic experts Dr S K Pathak, Dr Mahesh Verma and Dr. S R Singh conducted dummy experiments leading them to conclude that homicide could not be ruled out. Nevertheless, no arrests would be made for 16 years after the murder. It wouldn’t be until 19 November 2008 that the Crime Branch would finally arrest the two priests and the murderous nun for Abhaya’s murder.
On November 29 1996, the Central Bureau of Investigation issued its “first final report” (whatever that means….how many final reports do you have, anyway)? Although the reported stated it was undetermined as to whether Abhaya’s death was murder or suicide, the report was not accepted by the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court. Then on 9 July 1999, the CBI issued a second final report stating that Abhaya’s death was a homicide, but as of that time, the identity of the perpetrators was unknown. This report and a third final report in August 25, 2005, this one stating there was no proof that Abhaya had been murdered. These reports were also rejected by the court.
The Crime Branch alleged five serious accusations against local police, Kerala police and others involved with the investigation:
- The inquest report did not indicate the homicidal injuries on the body of Abhaya.
- The material evidence in the case was destroyed and the clothes were not subject to forensic examination.
- The photographs showing injuries on the body were removed.
- The crime scene was tampered with or material physical evidence was not collected from the crime scene.
- The post-mortem, chemical examination and laboratory report also had been erased and then rewritten.
On 17 July 2009, the guilty parties were finally charged with murder, defamation and destruction of evidence. There was speculation that an influential Christian leader from Central Kerala sabotaged the case by influencing the Congress government. Other allegations stated the Catholic Church Council tried to influence the outcome of the investigations; protecting their own, I suspect. The three accused said they were not physically tortured, but were mentally harassed. They were kept in dark rooms and were not allowed to sleep for three days. Sister Sephy said that she was forcibly subjected to medical examination. At least the doctor didn’t use an axe.
On 25 November 2008 V.V. Augustine, the Assistant Sub Inspector who prepared the First Information Report during the initial case investigation, committed suicide by cutting the artery on his wrist and taking poison. A suicide note cited mental torture by the CBI. In his personal diary, Augustine wrote about how he was pressured by CBI to say that police officers had influenced him. The CBI had alleged that Augustine destroyed evidence and closed the case as a suicide, but the diary revealed it was Augustine who suspected a possible homicide. He had recorded that Abhaya could have seen something “objectionable” in the dining room and could have been silenced. Overall I suspect it was the Catholic Church Council who implored the CBI to destroy evidence and cover up the murder. The Church has had enough bad press for the last few decades. A murdered nun was the last thing it needed.
By the grace of God however, justice won out. As of this writing, I don’t know what the sentence was for Abhaya’s killers. If anyone knows, I’d love to hear it.