The Kerala high court on Wednesday reduced to 10 years, the 20-year jail term awarded by a lower court to a defrocked priest convicted in the Kottiyoor rape case.
Justice R Narayana Pisharadi modified the conviction of the defrocked priest -- Robin Mathew Vadakkumcherry -- by the trial court for the offence of rape by a person who is in position of authority or trust over the victim as provided under the amended Section 376(2)(f) of the IPC and thereby, the sentence of 20 years awarded to him for the offence got reduced.
The high court, instead, convicted him for rape, which carries a minimum punishment of seven years jail term and a maximum of life imprisonment.
For the offence under Section 376(2)(f) of the IPC, the punishment cannot be less than 10 years and can be a maximum of life imprisonment.
The high court said, "Merely for the reason that the appellant/accused was the priest/vicar of the local church, it cannot be found that he had held any position of trust or authority towards the victim girl."
It further said that even the trial court, while finding the accused not guilty of aggravated penetrative sexual assault under Section 5(p) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, had categorically said that he cannot be regarded as a person in position of trust or authority of the victim.
"The state has not challenged the acquittal of the appellant/accused of the offence under Section 5(p) of the POCSO Act. In such circumstances, in the given facts of the present case, he cannot be found to be a person who was holding any position of trust or authority towards the victim girl so as to attract the offence punishable under Section 376(2)(f) of the IPC," said the HC.
"Conviction of the appellant/accused by the trial court under Section 376(2)(f) of the IPC has to be altered to conviction under Section 376(1) of the IPC," the high court said.
It, however, upheld his convictions by the trial court for the offences of penetrative sexual assault, sexual assault by a person of a religious or educational institute on a child in that institution and sexual assault resulting in pregnancy of a minor under the POCSO Act, all of which carry a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
The offences for which he was convicted by the high court carry a minimum punishment ranging from seven years to 10 years.
"Considering the facts and circumstances of the case, this court finds that awarding the appellant/accused a sentence of rigorous imprisonment for a period of ten years and fine of Rs 1,00,000 for the offence under Section 5(j)(ii) (penetrative sexual assault resulting in pregnancy of minor), read with Section 6 (punishment for aggravated penetrative sexual assault) of the POCSO Act would meet the ends of justice in the case," the high court said.
Advocate Ambika Devi S, the special government pleader (atrocities against omen and children), said that convictions under the POCSO Act were upheld as the prosecution was able to prove that the victim was a minor at that time of the incident -- in 2016 -- and therefore, any alleged consent by the victim was immaterial.
The trial court had in 2019 awarded 20 years imprisonment to Vadakkumcherry, in custody since 2017, and he had appealed against the same.
The rape survivor had moved the Supreme Court this year, seeking permission to marry her assaulter, but the apex court had dismissed the plea.
The top court had also dismissed a separate plea of the defrocked priest, seeking bail on the ground that he wanted to marry the survivor, who was a minor at the time of rape had given birth to a child.
The apex court had told the victim that she may knock on the door of trial court with her plea to marry the former priest.
Vadakkumcherry, who had initially tried to frame the woman's biological father, was found guilty by a POCSO court in 2019 despite the victim turning hostile and claiming that they had a consensual relationship.
On February 16, the Kerala high court dismissed the plea of the former priest seeking bail to marry the survivor saying that it has no merit.
The high court had said in its order that the trial court's finding that the survivor was a minor at the time of rape is still in force and an appeal against the conviction of the accused is still pending before it.
It had said that allowing the parties to get married while the trial court's finding is intact would mean granting judicial approval to the marriage.
On July 13, 2018, the top court had termed as "very serious", the charges in Kottiyoor rape case involving the minor and the then Catholic priest.
It had refused to stay the trial of the case.
Besides Vadakkumcherry, police had then booked two doctors and a hospital administrator under the provisions of POCSO Act for allegedly covering up the crime, not reporting it to the police after they had come in contact with the minor rape victim and destroying of evidence.
The victim had given birth to the child at their hospital and was under their care.