Police in India have charged two Catholic priests and three other individuals for the murder of Rev. Kochupurayil J. Thomas. The two priests were identified as Fr. Elias Daniel and Fr. William Patrick, while the other defendants were identified only by their first names, Peter, Francis and Swami. Police arrested the priests and an accomplice in March of this year after a year-long investigation, while the other two have avoided capture.
Pranab Mohanty, the Additional Director of Crimes of Karnataka state said on June 18 that a hunt for the remaining two is underway. Police filed the charges because under Indian law they must be filed within 90 days of a suspect’s arrest, Mohanty said.
Father Thomas, 63, was bludgeoned to death at St Peter's Pontifical Seminary in Bangalore in the Karnataka region of India on April 1, 2013. Mohanty added that "more evidence is needed" and the "investigation is continuing." Fr. Thomas had served the seminary since 1988.
While the reasons behind the murder are complicated, said Mohanty, he alleged the two accused priests thought Father Thomas was thwarting their ambitions for advancement within the Church hierarchy. A dispute over the seminary’s assets also brought things to a head, he said.
"It is not something that developed in a day or two. The enmity started at least four years ago," said Mohanty. "Then he was given a second term as rector, adding to the hate and anger," he said.
Catholic archdiocesan officials in Bangalore have yet to comment on the charges.
On the night of Fr. Thomas's murder, fellow priest Fr. Patrick Xavier was in an adjacent room but allegedly did not appear alarmed by the screams of the dying rector. When Mohanty was asked why Fr. Xavier was not also charged, he said, ”We cannot reveal all the details of the investigation.” Fr Xavier was, however, subjected to a polygraph, and drug examination. “Yes, there are questions regarding why Fr Xavier did not respond to the noise and commotion or inform the police immediately after the incident. But we need clinching evidence.” Fr. Xavier is the finance officer of the seminary
The murder occured during a simmering dispute between Catholics of distinct ethno-linguistic backgrounds. The Karnataka archdiocese has been riven by controversy for more than 30 years in which priests and laity of the Kannada linguistic group have been pitted against Catholics of other ethnicitiies. Observers on the ground are not ruling out the involvement of ethnic rivalries in the death of Rev. Thomas. Kannada-speakers have long demanded that preference by given to their language in Catholic Church liturgies. However, more than 70 percent of Catholics in the archdiocese speak Tamil. The Kannada lobby has been in a perennial dispute with the archbishop and the seminary authorities on the issue.
One of the accused, Fr. William Patrick is the cousin of Fr. Xavier - the priest who allegedly countenanced the murder of Father Thomas. The other accused priest, Fr. Elias Daniel - a member of the Order of Discalced Carmelites - was transferred to another post after the murder. Both of them are ardent supporters of the Kannada cause. Kannada-speaking priests staged a protest outside of Archbishop Bernard Moras's residence, following their arrest.