Father Leo D’Souza (middle) is taken by police after he was accused of sexually abusing a student. Local Christians suspect he was framed to tarnish the image of the Church and the reputation of the school. (Photo: UCAN)

Christian leaders in India have voiced concern that a priest accused of abusing a boy may have been framed to undermine the reputation of the local Christian community.

Police in the central state of Madhya Pradesh arrested Fr Leo D’Souza, 56, on 10 July after a complaint from the parents of a boy (aged about 13-14) who attended the church-run Amar Jyoti School in the rural district of Dindori.

The parents alleged that Fr D’Souza, the manager of the school, which is run by the Diocese of Jabalpur, had tried to abuse their son the previous evening.

District police superintendent Simala Prasad told UCA News that the priest faces charges under the non-bailable section of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences. The priest is accused of touching the body of a child with sexual intent and of “illegal confinement” of an individual. If found guilty, he faces up to five years in jail, and fines.

“We also will take statements from other children to ascertain if the accused is a habitual offender,” she added.

However, local church leaders criticised the police for arresting the priest without a preliminary investigation, saying they were trying to damage the reputation of the Christians who run the school.

The Bishop of Jabalpur, Gerald Almeida, said the accusation and the arrest has “shocked” the diocese.

“We have no idea what happened and who is right and who is wrong,” the bishop said, adding that the boy, who complained against the priest, had joined the school only 10 days before.

According to the bishop, hard-line Hindu groups had earlier tried to create trouble for Christians, accusing them of converting tribal people to Christianity, which is prohibited in Madhya Pradesh, a state governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

However, in May a group of lay Catholics criticised the Indian bishops’ response to allegations of abuse by clergy, accusing it of handling cases in secret, which they said “festers the wound”.

More than 100 theologians, women priests and feminists wrote to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India after Fr Robin Vadakkumcherry, 48, from Kerala attempted to flee the country after allegedly raping a young teenage girl. The letter acknowledged the bishops’ fears that exposing priests’ crimes “will be exploited politically by vested interests”, but urged them to comply with the law to “signal that the Church leadership is composed of law-abiding citizens, and that the Church as an institution supports justice for the victim”.

Meanwhile the Catholic Church in the western state of Goa has expressed “great pain” over the desecration of more than 40 crosses, mainly in cemeteries, in at least three villages this month. The vandalism follows the destruction in June of at least nine crosses along roads in the state, which has a strong Catholic presence. The incidents “are designed by vested interests to provoke communal discord and promote religious hatred,” Archbishop Felipe Neri Ferrao of Goa said.

However, he appealed to “all faiths to refrain from taking any retaliatory action or fanning the flame of religious hatred.”

Noting that the state has a tradition of “interreligious harmony and peace,” the archbishop urged people “to keep these sacred values at all cost”.