Kerala priest Father Dominic Valanmanal’s planned retreat to cure kids with autism sparks outrage
Kerala priest Father Dominic Valanmanal is in the news, once again for the wrong reasons. The Catholic priest, who has been banned from conducting retreats in Ireland and Australia for his insensitive comments about autism, is scheduled to hold a retreat in Kerala in a week’s time. Father Dominic has never retracted or apologised for his earlier comments and the fact that he has widespread support is cause for concern say many in the disability rights field. That’s our focus on #StoryOfTheWeek
“Why does this generation have autism and hyperactivity? The children of this generation .. should keep this in mind. Alcohol, cigarette, beedi, narcotics, paan, adultery, masturbation, homosexuality, porn – if you are addicted to any of these, I say to you in the name of God. Dear children, keep in mind, tomorrow when you get married and have children, there is a high possibility of bearing these type of children. It is because the anointing (sanctity) is lost. The young men and women are not filled with the Holy Spirit anymore. Afterwards, they lead an animal-like life”.
It was statements like these that led to authorities at the Catholic church in Ireland and later Australia cancelling invites extended to Kerala priest Father Dominic Valanmanal to conduct retreats in the two countries. Father Dominic, who has not apologised or retracted these comments is all set to hold a retreat in Kerala next week, where he claims he will ‘cure’ children with autism. The retreat will be held on 19 November at the Anakkara Retreat Centre near Idukki and there will be a week-long counselling session for parents as well.
The news has caused widespread concern and anger among many parents and disability rights activists who say that such ideas and misconceptions are doing great har, especially when they are offered by godmen. Just last week, there was an uproar over Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s comments warning about the harmful effects of vaccines.
But there are some in the disability rights community who insist that Father Dominic does not intend harm. Like Sona Jose, a member of the group TABASE and active participant in events to highlight the concerns of the disabled community. A member of the Catholic Church in Kerala, Sona has been spreading the word about Father Dominic’s retreat.
All that we want to do is spread the message of the event so that interested people can participate. Jesus often gives messages to Father Dominic. Jesus conveyed to Father that a child has autism due to sins of their past generations. So we are holding a one-day healing programme for parents who have children with disabilities like autism, ADHD and Down syndrome. People must attend the event personally to know what I am talking about. Our doors are open to all. – Sona Jose, Disability Rights Activist
However, Seema Lal, co-founder of prominent parent support group TogetherWeCan, believes it is not as simple as that.
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 talks about exploitation and ethical clearance before conducting research on any new claims. This is from a rights perspective entirely, keeping religion aside. I understand parents being vulnerable and I also get how professionals build around that vulnerability. But I just do not get disability rights advocates doing the same. Imparting solace and hope is different from providing unscientific and illegal information. – Seema Lal, Co-founder, TogetherWeCan
Fathima Azeez, parent to a six-year-old son with a disability, says it is unfortunate that there are people falling for such words. “We claim to be the state with the highest literacy and there are many educated people. Education is a synonym of wisdom. Then why do we fall for such unscientific claims?”, she asks.
Instead of becoming progressive in outlook and promoting a medical model in the disability space, godmen, says special educator Suchitra Narayan, are taking the community back. “In earlier days, people used to talk about witchcraft where a disabled child is beaten and physically harmed. Just when we thought that we have surpassed all that, here comes Father Dominic and his followers with newer remedies. Today, we are following a medical modal in disability space. Every disabled person has the right to live and no one must mock at them”.
Words of godmen and religious leaders have an even deeper effect on new parents who are vulnerable and desperate. “With all due respect to all religions, everyone is free to worship or go and listen to spiritual sermons”, says Anita Pradeep, who has a son with autism. “It is an individual’s decision. But to hear that we have children with autism because of our past sins is something to what I don’t know what to say. It is downright ridiculous and demeaning”.
Comments like these are offensive and abusive to people with disabilities and there should be tough action taken under the law, regardless of who is making them, politicians or godmen. Given the profound influence they wield in a country like India, the potential for harm is enormous and should be taken seriously.