- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2000

CALCUTTA Accusations of child abuse against a nun of the late Mother's Teresa's Missionaries of Charity have become a lightning rod for Hindu radicals, who oppose the presence of Christian activists in India.

Sister Francesca, who runs the order's Mahatma Gandhi Welfare Center in Calcutta, stands charged with burning the hands of four little street children earlier this month after they admitted stealing a 5-rupee coin, worth about 10 cents, to buy a magic-slate toy.

Three of the children have since disappeared, but the fourth victim's father Kabiram Mandal, a Hindu rag picker who lives on Calcutta's streets lodged a criminal complaint.

This, in turn, sparked a controversy that threatens to feed India's tinderbox sectarianism as Hindu leaders use the case to attack the Missionaries of Charity in particular and Christians in general.

"They say they love the children," said Asim Ghosh, the state president of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, India's ruling party. "But this torture of poor and innocent children in this brutal way simply shows the real face of Christian missionaries in India."

Investigating police found Mr. Mandal's 7-year-old daughter, Karabi, in the Gandhi center, where she had been living for two years with two of her sisters and about 100 other children.

The police sent her for a medical examination, which confirmed she had "sustained injuries, including burns" on the back of her left hand.

Sister Nirmala, who was elected head of the order following Mother Teresa's death in 1997, was not named in Mr. Mandal's complaint.

But she appeared voluntarily before Calcutta's chief metropolitan magistrate on Sept. 18 and posted bail of about $11.

"I did not have to go and surrender. But as head of the order, I chose to," she told The Washington Times on her return from the court. "I accept moral responsibility for the whole affair."

An openly apologetic Sister Nirmala met Mr. Mandal personally after her court appearance. She promised that the order would take care of the injured child and two of her sisters for the rest of their childhoods, keeping them at another Missionaries of Charity children's home in Calcutta.

The order then announced that an in-house inquiry had found Sister Francesca guilty of injuring the four children by scalding their hands with a hot knife. "The sister admits her guilt with great sorrow," Sister Nirmala said in a statement. "Her intention was to correct the children for stealing some money, but she definitely overstepped her limits."

The apology and admission of guilt left Mr. Mandal feeling overwhelmed. "The head of Mother Teresa's mission is saying sorry to me. I cannot stand it. I have committed a sin for forcing her into this humiliating position," he said.

Mr. Mandal does not want the Missionaries of Charity to be embarrassed further, but Hindu radicals and other political activists are urging him not to be conciliatory.

"They asked me to immediately sever all connections with the Christian missionaries," he said. "And they have threatened to throw us off our piece of pavement if I send my children back into the care of the Missionaries of Charity."

In recent years, Hindu militants have stirred up anti-Christian sentiment throughout India. In some cases, priests and missionaries have been kidnapped, beaten and murdered, nuns raped and Christian schools and churches destroyed.

Senior police officials feel Mr. Mandal was not initially interested in taking legal action when he learned his daughter had been improperly punished but was persuaded by others to lodge his complaint.

"It might be an organized move to malign these Christian missionaries, who are taking care of more than 10,000 destitute children in the city," said Raj Kanojia, central Calcutta's deputy police commissioner.

This is the first time in 50 years that an allegation of abuse has been made against the Missionaries of Charity, and the scandal comes as the Vatican considers whether to grant a fast-track application to canonize Mother Teresa.

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