Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Police, Health Officials Probe Divine Retreat Centre

Police, Health Officials Search Asia's Largest Catholic Retreat Center

October 2, 2006

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India (UCAN) -- Police and health department officials in Kerala jointly searched Divine Retreat Center for two days as part of an ongoing investigation.

Police officials said a joint team spent Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at the center in the southern state of Kerala as part of a probe the Kerala High Court ordered. The court on March 10 asked the state government to set up a special team to probe allegations against the retreat center in Muringoor, a village about 2,560 kilometers south of New Delhi.

Vincentian priests manage the complex, Asia's largest Catholic charismatic retreat center. Also considered one of the largest centers of its kind in the world, it conducts weekly retreats in six Indian languages and English throughout the year. More than 10,000 people from various religions attend the programs, which begin Sunday evening and end Saturday morning.

The court acted on an anonymous letter and two compact discs it reportedly received implicating Divine Retreat Center in a series of crimes and irregularities such as murder, rape, foreign exchange violations and running a hospital without proper license.

A 70-member police team led by Superintendent P.C. Muhajir of the Police Crime Branch visited the center at 8 a.m. on Sept. 30 and searched it for seven hours, while district medical officer Doctor Rajagopal led a health-department team of six pharmacists, two physicians and two psychiatrists.

The two groups quizzed center officials and people living there. The team returned the next day to seek detailed explanations from center authorities.

The team refused to divulge its findings. Muhajir told UCA News they would "submit a detailed report about our findings to the court" and that it was improper to divulge the details earlier than that, lest it affect "the future course of investigation."

The inspection team checked the center's facilities for treating drug addicts and alcoholics. They examined the drugs prescribed for patients and treatment procedures. The health officials on the search team expressed concern over what they saw.

"The patients are not getting proper medical care at the center," a health official told UCA News on condition of anonymity. According to him, the health-care facilities at the center violated medical laws and practices.

According to a police official, the search teams found that the center runs a hospital in its complex and treats patients without qualified medical professionals. The retreat center had applied for a license to run a hospital in 2001, but permission has not yet been granted.

The police official said the team also detected irregularities and violations of medical ethics in the treatment of patients suffering from depression and alcoholism at the center.

The center's director, Vincentian Father George Panackal, denied that it runs an illegal hospital. "The allegations are part of the conspiracy to defame the center and its activities," the priest told UCA News.

He acknowledged that the retreat center manages a center for mentally challenged people and a treatment center for alcoholics with federal government recognition. Their emergency dispensary cares for some of the thousands of people who attend retreats every week, he added.

According to Father Panackal, four psychiatrists give medical care and support for the mentally challenged people at the center. Other people get round-the-clock service from a resident medical officer, the priest said.

"We are serving people who live on the margins of society," he explained. Most people they care for have been "discarded by society," he continued, and the center does not "close our doors to them as they have nowhere to go."

The center runs St. Vincent Home, which serves 100 people living with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. Among them 13 are children. The retreat center also helps 150 substance abusers. Its Shantipuram (city of peace) facility houses 450 mentally ill patients. Maria Shanthi Bhavan (home of peace), started in November 2004, houses 100 destitute women. Another home, started in 1990, serves 150 widows and abandoned wives, and 300 children.

Legal trouble for the center began after a woman claiming to be one of its former employees told a magistrate that a priest at the center raped and impregnated her. The woman was in judicial custody for a theft case when she made the complaint.

Father Panackal said a Hindu police official probed the woman's allegations and reported them as baseless. Later the accused priest underwent a DNA test that proved the allegations as false.

Reproduced by Konkani Catholics with permission from UCAN (http://www.ucanews.com/)

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